For business, is health the new “green”?

A decade ago, few people would have thought that major banks, retailers or Internet companies would need environmental strategies. Yet today, they do–Bank of America has promised to invest $20 billion on sustainability initiatives over 10 years,  Wal-Mart’s aggressive environmental efforts are well known and eBay, while selling second-hand stuff, touts the idea of sustainable consumption.

This is largely because expectations of business are always rising. To pick another example: When I was a kid, we didn’t think about how or where or under what conditions our sneakers or T-shirts were made. Now brands that sell footwear or apparel maintain expensive and extensive efforts to monitor their supply chains, to avoid possible scandal around child labor or unsafe factories. Just as Nike or Gap.

So what’s the next big issue that companies need to worry about?

Edelman-Health-Barometer2The Edelman public relations firm says it’s health. Last month, after surveying 15,000 people in 11 countries, Edelman released what it calls its Health Engagement Barometer. The firm says health is emerging as a major corporate responsibility issue, not just for the obvious suspects–drug companies, insurance companies, the fast-food industry–but for companies of all kinds.

Of those surveyed, 69% said that

business should be as engaged in maintaining and improving personal and public health as it is in maintaining and improving the environment.

Respondents to the survey said they would be more willing to trust, do business with and even invest in companies that are engaged in health issues–by, for example, making available products that promote health, communicating the health risks of their products, helping their workers become healthier, helping address obesity or contributing to global health.

“Health is joining environment as a major sustainability issue and therefore a major issue for businesses that want to prosper in the future,” says Nancy Turett, global president for health at Edelman.

“While health has always been a very personal issue…now a very large cohort of individuals report themselves being involved in public health and very concerned about public health issues at community, national and global level,” she says.

Bruce Hayes, global managing director for health at Edelman, says: “People believe that health is both personal and public and also an increasingly important business imperative and business strategy for companies of all kinds, even those outside the health industry.”

Disclosure: I’m doing some consulting for Edelman around the Health Engagement Barometer, and participating in a couple of webinars on the topic. But I’m free to say what I think, as you’ll see. Before I do so,  take a look at some key findings from the Edelman survey.

This chart reports the benefits of “health engagement” to companies:

Edelman-Health-Barometer3

Here’s how “health engagement” is defined by people who responded to the survey:
Edelman-Health-Barometer4
These images may be hard to read, I realize. You can read Edelman’s full presentation below, as well as here on Slideshare.

Let me offer a few initial reactions to Edelman’s findings.

1. There’s no doubt that health is already an important corporate responsibility issue, and it’s like to remain so. Drug companies are under pressure to ease patent protections on AIDS and other drugs. Big businesses in the global south have joined together in such groups as the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDs, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Fast-food outlets have been told to eliminate trans-fats and beverage companies have agreed, under pressure, to stop selling soda pop in schools. (See, most recently, PepsiCo: No sugary drinks in world schools.)

Recently, I visited the new headquarters of Dick’s Sporting Goods, the fast-growing retailer, while reporting a story for Fortune. The suburban Pittsburgh campus has a awesome gym, as well as running paths, tennis courts and soccer fields. That’s partly because Dick’s in the sports business, of course, but to me it just seems like smart business. Wouldn’t every company want a healthy, sports-minded workforce?

2. When it comes to health, we should be careful not to blur the lines between personal responsibility, the role of government, and corporate responsibility. It seems to me that health is first a personal issue — are you taking good care of yourself?– and second a government issue — do you have access to good quality care? — and only after that a business issue. So, for example, I’ve always found it hard to buy into the claim Coke, McDonald’s or Ben & Jerry’s deserve much blame for the obesity crisis in America because no one is being coerced into overeating. (For a far more nuanced and sophisticated view, read Marc Ambinder’s excellent Beating Obesity article in the current Atlantic.)

By contrast, the quality of our environment is largely shaped by corporate behavior and government regulation. You and I don’t operate coal plants.

3. Health issues present more business opportunities than risks. The software company that helps me organize my health history in a secure way online will be a big winner. Businesses that that make it easy for people to walk or bike to work or to shop will enjoy competitive advantages. Home builders and renovators would do well to embrace “universal design,” as my friend Louis Tenenbaum has long argued. I’m not a health expert, but I’m sure there are dozens more examples like these.

Does that mean every big business needs a health strategy now? Hard to say. For corporate responsibility experts and smart companies, the question is at least worth thinking about.

Comments

  1. It is fairly natural for expectations to be placed on business with regard to health because businesses are in positions of power and their actions often affect the health of individuals. Dangerous working conditions, unhealthy buildings and stress are all negative contributions to individual health that can be made by businesses. On the flip side, fighting obesity, smoking and mental health issues can all improve the overall effectiveness and public image of these organizations. From a purely business standpoint of return on investment, there will be differing levels of investment for each organization that bring them some value.

  2. Marc, I view health-care as a corporate responsibility issue and would ideally have had it be higher profile for CR practitioners through the health-care debates. It bears all the characteristics of a CR issue as I described in a blog post in September, http://bit.ly/3TL7tE (please excuse the self promotion !), but wasn’t, I am sure, because it had become so politicized. Now that debate is mostly over, I hope CR practitioners can become more involved and I welcome your raising health-care in your blog. I hope it helps to to prompt more attention.

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