By the time I graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1964, young people nationwide were galvanized to serve. It was a golden age of service, prompted in part by President Kennedy’s well-known call to action in his 1961 inaugural address.
Like many others, I joined the Peace Corps—then headed to the rural village of Adzope in the Ivory Coast of Africa. My experience there teaching English and getting a public health project off the ground taught me to make the most out of opportunities to bring about positive change, a lesson I have carried with me throughout my business life. It reinforced a commitment to community involvement that goes back through generations of my family.
My great-great-granduncle, Levi Strauss, was a merchant and a philanthropist, a civic-minded business leader who believed deeply in community service. In fact, throughout our company’s 149-year history, business and corporate citizenship have been linked as one. This principle of “responsible commercial success” has endured in good times and bad and continues to anchor our beliefs and behaviors today. It is one of the reasons consumers trust our brands and company.
Today, American business faces a crisis of trust. Consumers have been barraged with news accounts of egregious corporate misconduct. Allegations of dishonesty, subterfuge, and executive greed have triggered government investigations, indictments, and company bankruptcies. Public trust of business has collapsed to levels not seen since the early 1900s.
Increasingly, consumers are holding corporations accountable not only for their products and services, but also for how they are made and marketed. Consumers want more than growth in shareholder value from business; they also expect good corporate citizenship. Great brands and businesses are built through a combination of two things: continuously providing superior products and services and earning the trust of consumers, employees, and the communities in which they operate. This is the formula for sustained business success.
Since September 11, Americans are expressing more interest in civic involvement and trust in one another and their government. According to Robert Putnam, the chronicler of trends in U.S. civic engagement, “In the aftermath of September’s tragedy, a window of opportunity has opened for a sort of civic renewal that occurs only once or twice in a century.”
This upswing in civic attitudes does not include greater trust of business. Knowing this, business has a timely opportunity—as well as a responsibility-to help shape society by modeling ethical conduct and civic engagement. Integrity means more than mere compliance with the law. It means “doing the right thing” through a range of responsible business practices, including increased transparency, outstanding workplace practices, exemplary environmental stewardship, generous philanthropic support, and more.
On a local level, businesses can help their workers become more engaged in the community. Employees want to do this, but are often hamstrung by the demands of their time-starved lives. Companies can conduct volunteer days, when teams of employees work together on community improvement projects; provide matching grants to employee contributions; and create a culture where senior leadership demonstrates the importance of community service. In return, businesses can attract and hold superior talent, improve employee morale, and generate community goodwill.
Internationally, U.S. multinational companies can play a progressive role as well. Business and communities prosper in America because of free markets and a democratic society. In diverse marketplaces around the world, business leaders can model the best of what America stands for—freedom, opportunity, and compassion. Corporate leaders must stand up for human rights and freedom of association; encourage responsible open trade and environmental stewardship; and support educational and employment opportunities for under-served populations, especially women and local minorities.
Of course, corporate citizenship is not uniquely American. Companies throughout the world have pioneered progressive practices and used their resources to help people, not just sell to them. We must build coalitions and create common frameworks for policies and programs that serve the public good.
My commitment to corporate social responsibility and community involvement stems from a family tradition and a national call to service that took me to a remote African village. Many ideals of Peace Corps service apply equally to the success of a global enterprise. A profits-through-principles approach to business is good for business and good for society.