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Sustainability and digitization have been two of the most significant global business trends over the past several years. Sustainability concerns humanity’s relationship with the natural world, while digitization focuses on the virtual world. Lacking obvious common roots, they have developed more or less independently of each other, but it’s time for these two worlds to merge.
The need for this merger is simple. The risks to humanity of poor or unethical digital practices are increasing rapidly and can no longer be ignored. Imagine the damage that could be caused by a weapon controlled by malevolent AI, the impact of a total loss of personal privacy, or the social and economic costs of unregulated gig-economy jobs with few or no social protections. The potential outcomes of these and other scenarios are starting to be openly discussed within governments and civil society. Now corporate entities need to join the debate.
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The corporate world is, in fact, beginning to realize its responsibilities for protecting the planet. Large entities like Unilever have long championed sustainability as a key corporate objective. The 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, chose “how to save the planet” as a guiding theme. Even the cutthroat world of private equity is taking note, as evidenced by BlackRock’s recent announcement that it will prioritize investments in sustainable entities.
These organizations realize that sustainable practices are not only good for the environment but for business as well. Unilever’s Sustainable Living Brands have accounted for more than 75% of the company’s recent growth.
Within most companies, however, the digital aspects of sustainability have been spread thinly across various corporate departments, if not entirely overlooked. Bringing these disparate and fragmented elements together under a single umbrella allows them to be addressed in a consistent and complementary manner. This new, consolidated focus is known as corporate digital responsibility. CDR is a subset of corporate social responsibility, an already established entity in many organizations.
I define CDR as a set of practices and behaviors that help an organization use data and digital technologies in a way that is socially, economically, technologically, and environmentally responsible.
The Four Categories of CDR
Each of CDR’s four categories contains components that engender significant opportunities to create competitive differentiation. (See “The 4 Categories of Corporate Digital Responsibility.”) They may also become threats if not appropriately addressed.