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From Corporate Greed to Social Need: How Big Ass Brands Will Save the World

10/17/2013 05:15 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Richard Branson is talking about it. HuffPost's Arianna Huffington is talking about it. Hell, the entire World Economic Forum is talking about it. It's the question of the day for those in tune with the future of business:

How can we transform business into a force for good and in doing so, solve some of the toughest problems our planet and the people on it are currently facing?

So far there have been a lot of answers. Most of which have come in the form of dollars. The call for good corporate citizenship has opened a floodgate of donations and grants to support nonprofits focused on alleviating some of our planet's greatest needs. The current version of CSR has become a sort of corporate version of crowd funding for whichever non-profit focus most calls to the company and its sustainability directors.

And this is a good thing. As with all brands dedicated to not just talking about change but actually taking action to create it, you have to start somewhere. But with an honest look, it's time to take this start, CSR 1.0, and mold it into something new. The greatest software on the planet needs an occasional upgrade, and at the moment, so does corporate citizenship.

There is no doubt that corporate grants and sponsorships help good causes, but do they help enough? Can the impact of these be seen in measurable ways? Are they translating into tangible relief for the people in need and pressing issues of our time?

The rub with giving a one-time lump sum is that it runs out. This type of corporate support, in and of itself, can only be measured in dollars. What CSR 2.0 calls for is a shift into a new method of support that can be measured in a more human way.

And the power to make that happen lies in the same place the power for all great change has always been found: With the people. Not just those who sit in the ivory towers holding the keys to the coiffeurs of CSR dollars, but a much wealthier, more accessible source of funding: ourselves. Consumers.

Everyday people, even the poorest of us, are the true source of power in Corporate America. It is our collective contribution, purchase by purchase, that makes brands rich.

Americans spent over $10 trillion last year. Break that down by the day and it comes out to roughly $27 million a day. Imagine what would happen if each one of those purchases had the power to put a small little dent in the world's problems. The cumulative effect would be staggering.

Just for fun, let's break the concept down into an actual "what if" scenario. Of the 10 trillion dollars spent last year, more than a billion dollars went to over the counter teeth whiteners. At an average cost of $34.00 per purchase, that breaks down to about 29,400 purchases a day.

Now, couple this with the fact that, according to a survey from the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, 74 percent of people feel an unattractive smile can hurt a person's career success. You know what else helps people succeed? Literacy. So what if the oral care company partnered with a nonprofit focused on ending illiteracy, and through this partnership, every time someone bought a box of whitening strips, through their purchase, they also bought a book for a kid learning to read. In one day, 29,000 kids would have 29,000 books. In one year, over a billion kids would be at least one book closer to literacy. Suddenly those companies aren't just brightening teeth, they are brightening futures. And, best of all, they are doing it in partnership with their most valuable asset: Consumers.

Everyday people uniting for the dream of a better world is how America was founded. It's our national birthright. And when we connect corporate greed with social need at the point of purchase, bringing everyday consumers together to make a change, we put a little more of the American Spirit into Corporate America.

We also give CSR the update it needs by creating a more sustainable form of support for those in need. Rather than relying solely on grants and donations, which will inevitably run out, we instead rely on spending at its source. And since we can all pretty safely agree that mass consumption isn't going to stop anytime soon, this support will continue, allowing change to take root without interruption.

Sustainable, tangible impact for a better world lies with the consumer. And now is the time for brands to reposition themselves to work hand in hand with their markets, becoming good corporate citizens not just through grants and donations, but purchase by purchase.