About a year ago, I was speaking with a CSR director at a Fortune 150 company. During that meeting, much to my surprise, he suggested that the cannabis industry needed tremendous help with CSR. In his opinion, the cannabis industry completely lacked formal programs touching on the fundamental “four pillars” of CSR: community engagement, employee engagement, sustainability and corporate philanthropy. As I investigated the issue, met with dozens of folks in the industry, I found that, indeed, very little was being done in these areas and what was being done, almost universally, was being done poorly – without strategy and authenticity.
Although cannabis is spreading across the country like, well, a weed, with hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, there is little evidence that cannabis companies are taking CSR seriously. Part of this is due to the fact that it is really an “infant” industry, rising out of an illegal, black market, where dealers and growers operated in the shadows, under constant fear of criminal prosecution. Part of this is also due to the onerous taxation regime put upon the industry in states like Colorado as well as the oppressive nature of IRS Code Section 280E which, generally, prevents cannabis businesses from taking ordinary business expenses and charitable donations as deductions. Finally, part of this, frankly, is due to the fact that the industry is just worried about survival in an uncertain time of mixed messages as to the threat of federal enforcement, a patchwork of shifting state regulations and laws, and allegedly thin profit margins (at least, that’s what most operators claim).
But in the infamous words of Bob Dylan, “The times they are a changing’.” Ivy-school minted MBA graduates and former Fortune 500 executives are recognizing exciting and lucrative business opportunities in this space and are becoming a new wave of professional “ganjapreneurs.” With these new arrivals, is a growing understanding that if the medical and recreational “high-THC” cannabis industry wants to normalize operations and legitimize its existence, CSR is a wonderful avenue to help further the cause. These companies need only follow the lead of their cousins in the hemp industry like Dr. Bronner’s and Nutiva, that have successfully made CSR a central tenet of their businesses. In addition, with $6.7 Billion (that’s with a “B”) in sales in 2016, and an influx of new players in both the industry and ancillary businesses every month, there’s clearly money being made.
But what I’ve seen as passing as CSR in the cannabis industry, is a confetti approach to corporate giving, ad hoc employee engagement, and some half-measured attempts at sustainability. As I’ve emphasized previously, in order to see the greatest Return on Investment with CSR, these programs absolutely must be built upon (and screened through the lens of) the foundation of company mission, vision, and values. Rarely have I found cannabis businesses that have undertaken this critical step to establish a social mission within their corporate DNA that strays beyond a vague commitment to health-based, pain-management, and/or chronic-illness issues (one exception is Bloom Farms, though there are a few others). Without this underpinning of mission/vision/values, it’s hard to build a strategic, integrated CSR program that passes the authenticity “smell” test or experiences any kind of measurable ROI.
What I have seen is cannabis industry executives talk about donating off-spec, excess, and/or unusable product to military vets, ostensibly to help alleviate PTSD, but without a “story” as to how doing so relates back to their business. I’ve seen other businesses sponsor charity events when asked without any reason for doing so other than some vague notion of “giving back” or the resulting publicity for doing so. I’ve seen some large scale, vertically integrated companies give money to a couple dozen different charities ranging from first responders to PrideFest to environmental conservation groups, calling it “community engagement,” but without any kind of strategy to their giving, and without truly serving the real needs of the communities to which they are giving and impacting. I’ve seen companies “volunteer” their employees for roadside cleanups so they can skirt advertising restrictions. I’ve seen other companies ask employees to volunteer in park cleanups around cannabis-themed events so as to prevent the industry from gaining a black eye. While these activities are laudable and can positively impact the community, seldom have I seen any measurable outcomes/impacts from these acts of charity or community engagement.
What I haven’t seen is the kind of strategic, integrated, and authentic CSR programs that other industries have. I haven’t seen paid time off for volunteer endeavors or company wide shut-downs for days of service or any kind of willingness to match employee donations to charity. I haven’t seen massive amounts of money placed into R&D to reduce energy usage or pesticide usage (save for a few companies that try to be as “organic” as is possible and a few public/private partnerships to advance concepts in sustainability to those who are willing to participate). Much of the community engagement I have seen has been too little, too late when a company has already adversely impacted neighbors. I’ve seen millions of dollars spent on lobbying and government relations and sparse dollars spent on community or employee engagement. And I’ve seen a tremendous amount of turnover in most cannabis companies, with low level workers moving from company to company as if in search of their dream employer who will value them for who they are and not what they do.
CSR is the way for smart businesses to get ahead of the pack, retain talent, and experience growth to the bottom line.
Some form of cannabis sales and usage is now legal in nearly 30 states and the market for various products is becoming increasingly crowded. Much like the micro-brewery craze, if companies want to start to distinguish their brands in the marketplace, become “employers of choice,” and become less susceptible to public and governmental scrutiny, CSR is the way for smart businesses to get ahead of the pack, retain talent, and experience growth to the bottom line. And, I predict the cannabis companies that do accept this challenge to become industry leaders in CSR, will experience robust growth, more customer loyalty, and greater community admiration – just like the companies in other industries with strong CSR programs.