We've come to accept the idea that companies must attempt to reduce their impact on the environment in order to be considered good corporate citizens, and that the failure to do so will be punished by consumers.
Now, a new study by public relations firm Edelman suggests that consumers also believe businesses should seek to improve the country's health, and that this responsibility extends beyond taking action to improve their own employees' wellness.
What's more, most people think businesses aren't meeting this expectation.
According to the survey, 81 percent of respondents believe it is important for business to share knowledge and innovations that improve health and 71 percent of those polled believe business should invest in creating healthy communities.
However, only one in 10 believe business is doing an excellent or very good job at improving health. This means there's an opportunity for companies that are able to step up and begin to fill the void.
Doing so, could have rewards. About 86 percent of respondents say they would be more likely to recommend or purchase from a company they believe is committed to improving health.
Nancy Turett, global president of health at Edelman, likens the situation to the early days of the "green" movement where companies that began to take positive environmental steps won over consumers with their actions.
The expectations go beyond the current dialogue about healthcare reform going on in Congress.
"That is really a shorthand for health care insurance reform," Turett said. She also said that any health care insurance reform can only be part of a solution to the nation's health problems, which include rising rates of obesity and pandemics of infections among others.
"It's important that companies not get behind the eight ball on this," says Turett.
Edelman is planning to do more research to dig deeper into the types of actions consumers expect and to see whether these expectations vary from industry to industry.
However, even with this initial research, one can see some opportunities. For example, a manufacturer could look to build a computer keyboard that is healthier to use, or design products that cater to the needs of an aging population.
Food companies, which came under harsh criticism early due to obesity concerns, have already been taking steps to head in this direction by looking hard at the ingredients in their products. In recent years, there are numerous examples, from the removal of trans fats from many foods to the reduction of sugar in breakfast cereals and sodium in some types of soup.
And while providing employee wellness programs are important, it is also important for companies to assess their "health footprint" and communicate to the public where they stand, Turett said.
Turtett expects that the rising expectations for companies is an outgrowth of a population that is more informed and engaged in their own health issues. In fact, one out of every five people not only care about and take action on health issues, they also act as channels of information themselves, she said.
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