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Paths to building social impact

Four strategies from leading tech brands for creating meaningful change

Paths to building social impact

Most young consumers now expect the businesses they support to prioritize social responsibility. Nearly 70% of Gen Z and millennial consumers believe that giving back—and making a positive impact on the local community—is “very important,” according to a recent survey by global technology company Lenovo. And 90% of consumers say they are more willing to purchase products that they deem beneficial to society, according to consulting firm Deloitte.

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Businesses cannot merely state they support social issues, however. To savvy consumers, manufactured authenticity does not cut it. They want detailed evidence that a company’s environmental, social, and governance (ESG) efforts go beyond its mission statement and result in genuine targeted action. And on the organizational side, a company’s ESG commitments can also play a crucial role in attracting and retaining top talent.

At the latest Fast Company Innovation Festival 360, Lenovo hosted a panel discussion about corporate social accountability alongside leaders from chipmaker Intel and video conference platform Zoom. These industry veterans shared ways companies can create meaningful social impact that resonates with their consumers, their employees, and their communities. The following are four key takeaways from their conversation.

1. When it comes to sustainability, suppliers matter.

Suppliers are the lifeblood of manufacturers such as Lenovo. With its $2 billion research-and-development budget, Lenovo has the financial might to extend its ESG commitments beyond its walls and into the businesses of its suppliers.

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Take data centers, which have traditionally required massive amounts of air conditioning to keep servers and storage products from overheating. New technologies that use water in the cooling process are less resource-intensive and more environmentally friendly—not to mention more efficient. As a result, Lenovo is working with Intel, one of its key suppliers, to incorporate these advanced cooling technologies into its end products. “These are the [R&D] dollars we’re putting in place in the design of the products we’re bringing out to market,” said Vlad Rozanovich, president of Lenovo North America.

Like Lenovo, Intel is also focused on sustainability and is taking measures to not only achieve its own goals but ensuring that partners like Lenovo can hit theirs. Lenovo has set the goal of reaching a net-zero carbon footprint by 2050. Todd Brady, Intel’s chief sustainability officer, said the company is working to minimize the carbon footprint of the products it creates for Lenovo, which in turn is helping Intel pursue its own sustainability goals: “That’s clearly a focus for us: How can we enable our customers in what they want to do in this space? To be able to do that, we’ve got to walk the walk ourselves.”

2. For social impact, focus on the how.

These days, consumers are demanding more information about companies’ corporate social responsibility efforts. They expect to see not only that a company is currently addressing important issues—including climate change, systemic racism, and access to education—but also how it’s addressing those issues. “They’re asking what resources you’re putting behind those commitments,” said Roxana Shirkhoda, head of social impact at Zoom. “And they’re asking for the timeline in achieving those commitments.”

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Shirkhoda noted that Zoom’s social impact arm, Zoom Cares, made more than $10 million in grants last year to organizations around the world. A key part of that grant-making process was choosing recipients in a transparent and informed way. Rather than make its own funding decisions, Zoom Cares relied on input from community leaders and created advisory councils to better inform their grant-making efforts. “I don’t know every single group in the trenches doing that work, but these leaders from the community do,” Shirkhoda said. “So we’re able to go back to our customers and say, ‘Thank you for holding us accountable—Here’s what we’re doing to really demonstrate our authenticity in our approach.'”

3. Show up for employees.

Employees don’t switch off their humanity when they come into work—and that’s a good thing. Indeed, each of the panelists noted the importance of empowering employees to pursue social impact through their jobs. For instance, Intel provides employees with a financial match for every hour they volunteer in their community—and its employee bonus structure is partially tied to its progress toward diversity and sustainability goals. “We want to enable employees to be involved and help drive this initiative,” Brady said.

At Lenovo, employees are encouraged to take time off to work in their communities, and the company offers a program that matches employees’ contributions to causes and organizations that matter to them. Lenovo also recognizes the ways in which technology can have impact: The Lenovo Foundation, the company’s philanthropic arm, is focused on providing technology and educational opportunities to underserved communities. “How do we make sure that we’re enabling people in our communities to have a better life?” Rozanovich asks. “STEM education is an area where our employees are engaged and want to contribute to working with local charities and local school districts.”

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4. Competition is good.

In the corporate world, competition matters. It’s what helps companies gobble up market share and create disruptive innovations that remake industries. And when it comes to social impact, a competitive approach can be positive. After all, doing good isn’t a zero-sum game: Companies setting increasingly ambitious goals around sustainability and diversity, for instance, are likely to influence other companies to ramp up their own efforts. “At the end of the day, if we can set high standards and compete against each other for doing good in the world, that’s the best race that I want to be part of,” Shirkhoda said. “And I would love to see that be a sprint, not a marathon, so we can get there faster.”

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