Two Greatest Risks to Voluntary Social Responsibility

Richardson (2015) best states that the greatest risks of demonstrating social responsibility in the retail industry are “the threat of substitution and capricious consumers” (p. 98). The greatest risks M&S may face in their endeavor to engraft their sustainability plan (Plan A) into every sector of its organization are twofold – loss of competitive advantage due to substitution and/or overreach that can lead to systemic mistakes.

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With the early 1970s movement of social responsibility for consumer purchasing and the environmental movement in the 1990s, consumers are looking more towards organizations who demonstrate social responsibility (Drumwright, 1994). In today’s consumer driven economy organizations vie for the best position in the market to recruit and retain customers. Certainly, M&S is no different as they faced the challenge of fickle consumers and sought to rebrand themselves (Richardson, 2015). M&S implemented a transformational business strategy to demonstrate social responsibility through managing its waste, engaging in fairer trading, and having a positive impact on climate change (Richardson, 2015).

 Such transformational change requires a shift in their organizational culture, and as a long-term process (Richardson, 2015), it leaves M&S somewhat vulnerable to finicky consumer behaviors. In their voluntary quest, M&S found themselves leading the industry in how to define the success of social responsibility (CSR) (Richardson, 2015). The risk of being such a leader is that a competitor may subsequently define successful CSR better and show more results to support their different definition. This may cause fickle consumers to leave M&S and substitute their products and services with those of their competitor. Customers may see other retailers providing more of what they want while still maintaining some sense of social responsibility, especially if quality and pricing is more superior to that offered by M&S. Additionally, if M&S’s marketing strategies are not aligned with their transformational change to increase social responsibility, the true message behind their plight will be lost on its customer base (Drumwright, 1994).

Although M&S understands that things will go wrong and they are comfortable operating in that space of uncertainty, another risk is that the organization may find itself in a negative public light, consistently engaging in damage control if mistakes become too systemic (Richardson, 2015). M&S has voluntarily placed a tremendous undertaking upon itself to bring the entire supply chain, organizational departments, and culture into alignment with Plan A by 2020 (Richardson, 2015), leaving them vulnerable to criticism if they cannot meet their own demands. 

While noble, this may be an overreach in expectation causing more harm than good. With growing mass-media, consumers are becoming more educated and more aware of retailers’ practices that appear socially irresponsible (Wagner, Lutz, & Weitz, 2009), regardless of whether the practice may be outside their industry’s scope. One may believe that consumers can be forgiving of organizations who have issues with social responsibility. However, studies show that negative information regarding social responsibility has a greater impact on consumer perception than positive information (Wagner et al., 2009). Regarding inconsistency in an organization’s social responsibility, studies show that consumers are more apt to perceive this as corporate hypocrisy, which can lead to an even greater negative impact (Wagner et al., 2009). Such a predicament would be disastrous for M&S if they had to try to undo the psychological ramifications of the public’s perceptions of hypocrisy.

Top Two Recommendations for Cultivating Stakeholder Engagement

The concept of collaborative stakeholder engagement is finding traction in the corporate social responsibility arena (Aakhus & Bzdak, 2015). One of the best ways M&S can cultivate engagement of their Plan A among internal and external stakeholders is through a robust communication strategy. Already a commitment objective, involving customers in Plan A (Richardson, 2015) will help to engage external stakeholders in their decision-making and implementation of Plan A. Furthermore, M&S should expand their communication and engagement to include their internal stakeholders as well. In fact, Drumwright (1994) notes “supervisors and middle managers who will inherit greater management challenges due to the socially responsible product” (p. 13) should be engaged in collaborative problem solving to help overcome resistance within the organization and to increase the likelihood of successful transformational change. Communication among organizational leaders and its stakeholders should be clear, concise, informative, robust, and frequent to elicit the best engagement response. Such practices will help build trust in the concept of Plan A, give stakeholders a voice, and therefore, increase buy-in to the changes and the requisite change behaviors.

Another recommendation for cultivating engagement with stakeholders is to have a robust marketing strategy. An effective marketing strategy can highlight M&S’s social responsibility endeavor, its convictions for operating in an environmentally conscious manner, and educate stakeholders that it is not being done for competitive advantage but because it is the right thing to do (Drumwright, 1994). Such a marketing strategy can also highlight the socially responsible behaviors of M&S’s external stakeholders, including their supply chain, and create a collaborative movement with their vendors. Such key partnerships highlighted in an effective marketing campaign can help build consumers’ trust in the retailer as well as the overall industry. The added benefit is that employees will perceive they are working towards a higher purpose and that their impact goes beyond just M&S, but also impacts an entire system.

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Two Greatest Risks to Voluntary Social Responsibility. (2022, Sep 01). Retrieved October 3, 2022 , from

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