I was honored to be included as a panelist at Duke’s Sustainable Business & Social Impact Conference (SBSI) where over 500 students, professionals, academics, and others gathered at the Fuqua School of Business to discuss innovative business models, partnerships, and ideas that are creating lasting social impact around the world. It’s always fun to go back to a university campus, especially when it happens to be Duke University in North Carolina where it’s usually a bit warmer in February than it is up here in Boston. Not this year though since I got snowed in in Durham!

I joined an all-star team of CSR professionals including Alex Michalko, CSR Analyst at REI; Jana Holt, Consultant at Context Group; and Matt Kopac, Manager of Social & Environmental Responsibility at Burt’s Bees to have a dialogue around “Hot Trends in Corporate Social Responsibility.” We all spoke less about current initiatives we were working on and more about general themes we’re seeing in the marketplace. Here are four themes that came out of our discussion:

1. Partnerships are Maturing. Many partnerships today go beyond the classic public-private relationship. Partnerships are being built across all sectors and industries to best leverage resources and achieve very specific impacts in a variety of social and environmental issues. This is especially true concerning partnerships between companies themselves. Whereas in the past competitors have stayed away from sharing with each other, they are now working together in many industries around shared issues of importance such as common frameworks and metrics for environmental sustainability.

2. Sharing & Transparency in Real-Time. Brands are connecting with consumers and other stakeholders daily who want small chunks of information on their CSR impact – bites versus meals. As a result, the annual 80 page CSR report may evolve to exist as a platform to lay out CSR goals and report detailed progress, while companies continue to look to new and innovative ways to share information with stakeholders in real-time, through social media, micro-sites, storytelling, visuals (e.g. infographics), and more.

3. Companies as Advocates. As companies engage more deeply in social and environmental issues, they are transitioning from support to advocacy around causes. This is especially true if they have longstanding experience and credibility in the space. They are leveraging their dollars, interest, leadership and strength of their corporate voice to be advocates for change.

4. Focus on the Economy. With the “fall” of the middle class and recession troubles that have plagued the U.S. (and the world), we are seeing a real focus on the economy as both a business and social issue. Companies are tackling this in a couple of ways:

•  Assessing and planning for their resource needs to stay viable for the future. As resources become scarcer, companies are rethinking their supply chains, up and down, to help them do more with less and “sustain” their business for the long-term.

•  Understanding what their role is in the overall health of the economy and how they can do more, for example, in putting people back to work, making sure their employees are happy, supporting local communities, and more.

Check out Duke’s SBSI Conference summaries to learn more about this panel and others. Thanks to my fellow panelists for a great conversation and to Duke for hosting me!

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