• Carolina MIlanesi

Corporate Social Responsibility Took Stage At CES, But 2021 Demands More

In the first-ever all-digital Consumer Electronics Show (CES), everything was a little different. From lack of sore feet to having time to attend the conference talk tracks to what seemed like a much lighter announcement roster. Over the years, CES has played a remarkable role in bringing together the tech industry to show where technology was headed and excite people at work as well as consumers about what was to come. This year, however, the uncertainty brought about by the pandemic and the loud cries against social inequality and lack of social justice for under-represented groups clearly had an impact on how brands decided to show up at CES.

Products announced at the show seemed to fall into three main categories. First, there were Covid-19 related products aimed at either helping us be productive or lowering our risk of coming into contact with germs. Second, there were smart white goods and bigger and brighter televisions, a cornerstone of the CES lineup. This year they took on a broader entertainment, learning and health focus as the time we spent a home due to the pandemic remains uncertain. Lastly, the pie in the sky kind of products, gadgets that were so very expensive that it almost did not matter they would not come to market for years.

Despite not being a hardware product, something that had a strong presence on the CES stage was Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Brands talked about the accessibility of their products or their philanthropic efforts to give back to the community or simply accept accountability for the significant influence and responsibility that technology brands have with every product and service they bring to market.

There's no question that what happened in 2020, both from a pandemic, and social unrest due to inequality, led many tech brands to go beyond their sexy and cool products and start to put more focus on impact and responsibility. Different reasons drive such a move from brands, but it is clear that customers and employees are both asking for more transparency and more significant commitments. Who you are as a brand and what you stand for matters, especially to Millennials and GenZers.

It was rather fitting then that Microsoft used its CES keynote, not to talk about its products, but to talk about where technology is headed, considering both the promise and the perils it brings and the responsibilities that the tech industry has to live up to the former and to minimize the latter. As Microsoft's President, Brad Smith, walked the audience through a data center tour, he highlighted one of the promises for a healthier world that can arise from the innovation driven by the intersection between digital technology, energy technology, environmental science. Smith did not shy away from the perils and addressed the SolarWinds hack calling out the concerns governments have been having, switching the conversation from what they should do to what they expect the tech industry to do regarding areas such as privacy, cybersecurity and digital safety.

Other brands at CES talked about sustainability and accessibility. Samsung introduces a solar-powered TV remote control made with 77% recycled plastic. Samsung also added two accessibility functionalities to its new range of QLED and Neo QLED TVs a SeeColor app and a Sign Language Zoom. With the SeeColor app, a viewer with Color Vision Deficiency (CVD) can take a Colorlite® Test to optimize their viewing experience to their CVD levels. The Sign Language Zoom automatically recognizes and magnifies the sign language area for the hearing-impaired by up to 200%. Users can specify a sign language area and adjust the magnification by zooming in on the area and move the captions to avoid blocking the subtitle text.

Lastly, brands also talked about their philanthropic efforts, like Sony, which announced a $1.7 million product donation to the International African American Museum, scheduled to open in 2022 in Charleston, South Carolina. Through Sony's Global Social Justice Fund, the contribution will create displays and interactive experiences throughout the museum like a 32-foot wide, 7-foot high Crystal LED display, will be used to evoke emotional responses from visitors experiencing the journey of African Americans.

On the specific topic of diversity and inclusion, CES's digital nature also helped drive a more diverse set of speakers this year, something that has not gone unnoticed given the harsh criticism the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) has faced for years. The speaker list was not the only thing that was diverse this year. Marketing material used by brands also displayed a more diverse set of subjects.

All of this effort is all well and good and clearly a recognition that what we experienced in 2020 has impacted our society in many different ways, including a stronger need from consumers to associate themselves with brands that reflect their values and choosing to take their money elsewhere when a company and its leaders do not live up to such values. In 2020, we also saw the pressure employees have put on their organizations not through workers' unions but social media. Employees have the ability to speak up against the injustices that they see within tech corporations, either because of how workers are treated or because of how products are designed and developed. These two trends tell us that if brands are not ready to take responsibility, their employees and their customers will hold them responsible.

Initiatives that provide financial support to organizations driving social justice and equity and positively impacting society in different parts of our lives, such as health, education, or social justice, are both significant and very welcome. So is the focus on designing sustainable and inclusive products. But this is not the only way tech companies demonstrate that they are taking their accountability seriously. There is so much more work to be done in growing diversity within tech companies, from base numbers to technical roles and board seats. More work is to be done when designing products with everyone in mind, both from an accessibility perspective and price and distribution perspective. There is undoubtedly more work to be done in safeguarding the most vulnerable when it comes to data privacy and erasing the class component of the increasing digital divide.

Corporate social responsibility and corporate social justice can no longer be a side project. The stakes are too high, not just for us as a society, but for business itself. Not taking action, not having a social impact plan will soon be seen as a weakness, a business risk that investors will not look upon favorably.

This article was originally published on Forbes

Disclosure: The Heart of Tech is a research and consultancy firm that engages or has engaged in research, analysis, and advisory services with many technology companies, including those mentioned in this column. The author does not hold any equity positions with any company mentioned in this column

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