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Developing CSR through Dialogue and Co-Creation

Authentic customer experience storytelling can be a powerful means to make changing customer expectations visible. Customer-led storytelling can transform public narratives about production and consumption in such a way that companies, too, will want to participate in those narratives of development and change.


Crister Nyberg

Principal Lecturer
Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Published : 18.05.2021

Making sustainable life choices and purchasing decisions can be challenging, as those decisions must often be made on the spot, relying on the best knowledge available. One way to support sustainable decision-making is to be an active communicator. We can all inform and inspire each other by openly discussing our sustainability concerns and customer expectations with friends, peers, companies, and policymakers.

How to develop CSR activities?

To help companies develop their CSR activities and operations, there are plenty of standards and tools available to support economic, environmental, and social transformation. As one example, we have the Environmental and Social Performance Standards by the International Finance Corporation IFC, a member of the World Bank Group. These IFC performance standards enable companies to evaluate their CSR operations and related risks.

Despite aiming to improve the sustainability of choices made and actions taken, it is often challenging for consumers and companies alike to see the big picture. Long and complicated supply chains make it difficult to track and monitor the attainment of sustainability goals.

The lack of transparency poses problems for sustainability marketing and its ability to verify and substantiate sustainability claims. For consumers, it is difficult to know for sure if a company’s marketing messages can be trusted.

One way to develop both companies’ and consumers’ competencies in sustainable marketing and consumption, and to create trust between them, is to engage them in dialogue and hands-on co-creation. One such experiment is currently in process at Haaga-Helia, as part of a larger sustainability competence development project, KESTO.

Transformative power of co-creation and customer storytelling

In an international marketing project called Sustainable Chocolate, a multicultural and multidisciplinary group of some 40 higher education students, teachers, and researchers work together with entrepreneurs. The aim is to increase awareness of the sustainability challenges of chocolate production, marketing, and consumption.

Based on dialogue and co-creation, the students develop authentic customer experience stories that aim to inspire changes in end-consumers’ chocolate purchasing habits.

The project offers all the stakeholders an opportunity to discuss and analyze sustainability challenges and solutions along with their own goals, experiences, and expectations from multiple perspectives. International grassroot-level collaboration invites all parties to contribute to solving shared sustainability challenges.

Two local artisan chocolatiers, one from Finland and the other from Belgium, share their knowledge and visions about sustainability and the chocolate business with higher education students and experts. In return, the companies get insight into the customer experiences and expectations of higher education students across Europe.

The teachers and researchers acquire knowledge about students’ and entrepreneurs’ sustainability competences and educational development needs.

The co-creation activities have proved that sustainability issues and ethical branding are increasingly important for young international higher education students.

The students appreciate the local chocolatiers’ efforts to make more sustainable and healthier options available to end-consumers. They also recognize the need to invest more in the cocoa producing countries, to pay farmers more, and to educate farmers about sustainability challenges to help them develop their livelihoods.

Local chocolatiers have the flexibility to engage with their customers in personalized ways. This direct contact with customers can help identify inspiring and meaningful ways to unite the sustainability goals of entrepreneurs and customers.

Authentic customer experience storytelling can be a powerful means to make changing customer expectations visible. With relatable and inspirational customer experience stories, it is possible to increase consumers’ readiness to pay more for sustainably produced chocolate.

The ultimate aim of such customer-led storytelling is to transform public narratives about chocolate production and consumption in such a way that mass-producers of chocolate, too, will want to participate in those narratives of development and change.