For business, is health the new “green”?

Marc Gunther Marc Gunther examines the recently released Health Engagement Barometer which makes the point that health is going to take center stage as a potential brand and reputation issue that corporations will have to address. 69% of respondents believe that businesses have a role in protecting personal and public health.  In addition, people are more likely to trust and purchase from businesses that communicate healthy values.

Posted May 3, 2010
By Marc Gunther, The Business of Sustainability

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?

The 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 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:


Here’s how “health engagement” is defined by people who responded to the

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
. 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.

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