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Exploring Higher Education Students’ CSR Expectations towards Retail Companies

Young generations have growing expectations towards companies’ CSR and sustainability actions. Teachers from Haaga-Helia and Faculty of Economics at University of Coimbra collaborated online to explore how students approach and feel about retail companies’ CSR communication, sustainability action, and stakeholder collaboration.

Published : 13.12.2022

The Erasmus+ project Learn to Change – Collaborative Digital Storytelling for Sustainable Change studies and develops digital forms of stakeholder collaboration between higher education students and companies in the context of sustainable development.

As part of the project’s multiplier and dissemination activities, we co-organized a university-industry collaboration project involving more than 120 international students from Faculty of Economics at University of Coimbra, Portugal. As a digital learning platform, we used a shared Padlet wall to exchange research results and project findings between 21 student teams and their teachers in Portugal and Finland.

The students participated in Dr Carmina Nunes’ course Corporate Social Responsibility and Business Ethics running from September to December 2022. They worked in teams to investigate the CSR communications and actions of selected retail companies. They gathered information from company websites, carried out stakeholder surveys, and interviewed company representatives and stakeholders.

Based on their data analysis, the teams proposed a CSR action plan for the retail company of their choice. The students chose to focus on the following retail brands: 8000kicks, Pingo Doce, Lidl, Mercadona, Continente, Intermarché, Mango, Aldi, Zara, IKEA, Auchan, Litocar, H&M, S Group, McDonald’s, Carrefour, and Minipreço.

Students expect active and open CSR collaboration among stakeholders

Based on the research results, reflections and development suggestions, the students expect retail companies to be approachable to stakeholders. They look for opportunities to interact with the company and other stakeholders through user-friendly and safe digital services and platforms.

In practice, students found that it was rather challenging to get in touch and interact with company management or personnel – even in cases where the company’s CSR policies underline the importance of “engagement”, “transparency” or “permanent dialogue” in relation to their stakeholders.

In their CSR development suggestions, the students usually focused on customers and employees as key stakeholder groups, and they had many practical suggestions about how to develop engaging and trustworthy communication and collaboration practices for them.

It is important to have a simple and intuitive website, to have a close experience. It is a very relevant factor in a customer’s shopping experience. And […] it is necessary that the experience is safe and reliable. Ensuring consumer confidence about the data they are disclosing to the company […] is crucial for their continued trust in the company.” (Team 11)

Another suggestion that we consider beneficial for the company is the implementation of means that allow the opinions of employees to be heard through the completion of reports/questionnaires by the employees, […] also including proposals for possible changes or improvements to the company’s services.” (Team 20)

From the perspective of the students, retail companies have a lot of power and resources to influence sustainable development through their stakeholder networks. As retail brands play a significant part in people’s everyday lives, students propose that companies engage much more actively in inspiring CSR communication and stakeholder collaboration, both on digital channels and in physical stores.

Development suggestions impacting businesses, people, society and the environment

In their CSR action plans, the students presented a comprehensive array of development suggestions for the studied retail companies, stressing the urgency of adopting larger societal and environmental corporate purposes and the inevitable interrelatedness of business, people, society, and the environment.

Promoting change for a better community can be achieved by aiding individuals in unstable conditions. For instance, offering refugees and homeless people clothing and essential goods would be a significant step to embrace the fight against poverty and hunger, as well as donating to help people during fires and floods. With the war in Ukraine and the recent migratory movements caused by middle-Eastern conflicts, this plan of action must start as soon as possible. (Team 19)

All in all, students considered and formulated development ideas related to circular economy, green energy, environmental protection, animal welfare, waste management, environmental protection, plant-based food, responsible consumption, local production and suppliers, healthy lifestyles, transparency, data confidentiality, product and service quality, volunteering and charity work, consumer participation, social development promotion and regional inclusion, equal gender pay, fair trade labor, inclusive organizational culture, ethical code of conduct, value-driven leadership, employee motivation, proactive and inclusive communication, team building, workplace safety, continuous training and coaching, and overall employee welfare.

The course Corporate Social Responsibility and Business Ethics organized at the Faculty of Economics of University of Coimbra attracted a record number of students. Their remarkable commitment to studying and developing CSR goes to show that young generations have high expectations towards companies’ ability and willingness to interact and collaborate with their stakeholders in implementing sustainable solutions and changes. Higher education students are a valuable creative resource for companies when it comes to finding ways to engage stakeholders in sustainable development, both digitally and physically.