The study, a follow-up to the 2011 global survey of consumer attitudes, perceptions and behaviors around CSR, was conducted by Cone Communications and Echo Research. Reflecting the sentiments of more than 10,000 citizens in 10 of the largest countries in the world by GDP, including the United States, Canada, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia, China, India and Japan, the research is complemented with insights from country-specific CSR experts.

“Consumers across the globe resoundingly affirm CSR as a critical business strategy,” says Dan Soulas, managing director of Echo Research. “It is vital for companies to understand the unique, market-level nuances to effectively participate in the CSR interchange. A one-size-fits-all approach just won’t work.”

CSR has never been more urgent – incidents of corporate negligence are tenaciously reported by mass media, but consumers all over the world are also taking to social channels to learn and engage around critical issues without constraint. Nearly two-thirds of global consumers (62%) say they use social media to address or engage with companies around CSR. Although the majority shares positive information with their networks, more than a quarter are communicating negative news:

34% of consumers use social media to share positive information about companies and issues
29% are using social media to learn more about specific organizations and issues
26% are using social media to share negative information
Social media is accelerating CSR, but especially in highly mobile-savvy and emerging countries China, India and Brazil, where 90 percent, 89 percent and 85 percent of the respective populations report using social channels to engage with companies around their CSR efforts.

“Social media is changing the face of CSR, as citizens worldwide have unprecedented access to information about corporate behavior,” says Alison DaSilva, executive vice president – Research & Insights, Cone Communications. “They are poised to not only engage with companies around vital issues but also serve as CSR megaphones, equally propagating the good and bad.”

As global citizens become increasingly aware of businesses’ behaviors and CSR initiatives – in part because of social media, they are also becoming more astute about both corporate and consumer impacts. Around the world, the majority of consumers feel both individuals and corporations are having some degree of positive influence on social and environmental issues; however, just one-quarter feels either is making a significant impact.

22% of consumers believes companies have made significant positive impact on social and environmental issues
27% believes consumers themselves can have significant positive impact through their purchases
“Companies have a job to do,” DaSilva says. “This research reveals an increasingly social, savvy consumer who is looking for proof of progress. Varying degrees of perceived individual and corporate impact underscore the overwhelming need for companies to consistently communicate both corporate and consumer CSR return.”

Consumers Possess High Expectations
Global consumers have definitive expectations for the role companies should play in addressing social and environmental issues and are avidly considering CSR in a variety of decisions:

Just 6% of consumers believe the singular purpose of business is to make money for shareholders
91% believes companies must go beyond the minimum standards required by law to operate responsibly
93% wants to see more of the products and services they use support CSR
More than eight-in-10 consider CSR when deciding where to work (81%), what to buy or where to shop (87%) and which products and services to recommend to others (85%)
CSR Will Help or Hinder the Bottom Line
The benefits of CSR extend far beyond a brand halo. When companies support social or environmental issues, consumer affinity overwhelmingly upsurges:

96% of global citizens will have a more positive image of that company
94% will be more likely to trust that company
93% will be more loyal to the company (i.e., continue buying products or services)
CSR also remains a powerful differentiator at the register, with nearly all consumers indicating a strong inclination to shop for products and services that demonstrate social and/or environmental benefits:

91% of global consumers are likely to switch brands to one that supports a good cause, given similar price and quality
92% would buy a product with a social and/or environmental benefit if given the opportunity, and more than two-thirds (67%) have done so in the past 12 months
However, purchasing is also an avenue for consumer activism against companies. Nine-in-10 global citizens say they would boycott if they learned of a company’s irresponsible business practices, and more than half (55%) have done so in the past 12 months.

Economic Development and Changing Operations Are Top Priorities
Economic development (38%) is far and away the most pressing issue global citizens want companies to address, increasing 4 percentage points since 2011. This comes as no surprise as the world struggles to recover from one of the worst financial crises in history. The environment (19%), human rights (11%) and poverty and hunger (11%) are the next most important priority issues consumers want companies to tackle.

Today’s sophisticated global consumer also understands companies must look within and evolve the way they operate to achieve the greatest positive impact. Consumers remain steadfast in their 2011 conviction that companies must change the way they operate in order to address today’s pressing issues (30% in 2013 vs. 31% in 2011). Innovation remains critical as well, with nearly one-fifth (18%) of global citizens calling out new product or service development as the one approach companies should take to positively affect social and environmental issues. Just 7 percent thinks it’s enough for companies to engage in issues through cash, product or service donations.

Communication Content and Channel Matter
The 2013 Cone Communications/Echo Global CSR Study reveals that communicating not only CSR initiatives but results is paramount. Today’s global citizens demand more than mission statements – 91 percent wants to hear about companies’ CSR efforts and progress. However, for that communication to resonate, messages must be honest and clear:

88% of global consumers believe companies share positive information about their CSR efforts, but withhold negative information
70% are confused by CSR messages
Traditional channels such as on product packages or news stories continue to be the most effective way to reach consumers, but this year online and mobile channels are proving to be a not-to-be-ignored opportunity for companies. Collectively, company websites, social media and mobile phones represent nearly one-quarter (24%) of consumers’ preferred communication vehicles:

On the product or its package/label: 24%
Media (e.g., articles in newspapers): 18%
Advertising (print, broadcast or online): 15%
Corporate website: 11%
Social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter): 9%
In store (e.g., store employees or signage): 8%
Company-sponsored events (e.g., charity walk or concert): 7%
Mail: 6%
Cell/mobile phone: 4%
Consumers Feel Accountable, Empowered to Affect Change
Just as consumers want companies to change, they also feel personally accountable for making responsible purchasing decisions. A mere 13 percent feels they do not play any role in addressing social and environmental issues through their purchases, while one-in-five (21%) consumers not only proactively seek out products and services they feel are responsible every time they shop, but also encourage others to do the same. Citizens’ motives for buying such products are primarily altruistic – 39 percent says these purchases are an attempt to help improve society or reduce environmental damage. About half of consumers buy with more individual motives in mind, including making them feel good or letting them live their values (29%) and improving their own lives (23%).

Global Nuances
Although there is strong support of CSR across all countries studied, there are distinct differences in market-specific consumer attitudes and behaviors. Citizens in emerging markets such as Brazil, China and India embrace CSR with near-unanimous enthusiasm and are actively sharing, supporting and advocating with companies to address societal challenges. The passion of these emerging markets is in stark contrast to the more reserved and even detached approach to CSR by European populations. In the U.K., Germany and France, CSR is oftentimes a product of government regulation – and as a result, consumers are less apt to partner with companies. As business looks to emerging markets for sustained growth, CSR will be critical component of business strategy.

Emerging market populations are more resolute in their intentions to shop for a cause.
Consumers in Brazil (76%), China (68%) and India (67%) are “very likely” to switch brands in favor of those that support cause, versus France (42%), Germany (52%) and the U.K. (38%)
Citizens in emerging markets are more likely to act as megaphones for CSR.
Consumers in Brazil (95%), China (95%) and India (94%) say they would tell their friends and family about a company’s CSR efforts, versus France (83%), Germany (84%) and the U.K. (80%)
Consumers in emerging markets are eager to be engaged in companies’ CSR decisions.
Consumers in Brazil (94%), China (92%) and India (94%) are likely to voice their opinions about company’s CSR efforts directly to that company, versus France (74%), Germany (71%) and the U.K. (68%)
“Companies have a tremendous opportunity to partner with enthusiastic global citizens to affect change, but they must understand the motives, perceptions and appropriate types of engagement from market to market,” says DaSilva. “It’s no longer a question of if companies should engage in CSR – it’s now a question of to what extent will they do so, and how will they create and communicate real and meaningful impact.”