HBHI is the host of 'Conversations on the Business of Health,' a series of one-hour webinars that engage leaders of business and academia about improving American health care. Here are some highlights from the recent discussion about corporate social responsibility with Building H founders, Steve Downs and Thomas Goetz; Stanford professor, Sara Singer; and University of Chicago professor, Luigi Zingales. The conversation was moderated by HBHI’s Mario Macis, Professor of Economics at Carey Business School.

As the health of Americans gets worse, with chronic disease and physical and mental illnesses on the rise, do corporations have a role to play in addressing the health crisis? Given the massive influence of their products and services on community well-being, there may be no alternative.

“We need to do something differently. And I think that what we need to do differently is to stop relying so much on the medical care system,” said Sarah Singer, professor of medicine and organizational behavior at Stanford University. “If we start thinking that way, we can't get away from the fact that the business sector is important, so we need to engage them.”

Singer is one of the many researchers and experts who are exploring ways to improve the “product environment” for better health. Examples of built-in product features that work against overall health are everywhere—digital platform features like video autoplay and endlessly scrolling content are made to keep viewers stuck to their screens, which threatens consumers’ overall mental and physical well-being.

“It's very hard to be healthy in the United States today, and that is actually a very deliberate and inevitable result of the world that we’ve built,” said Thomas Goetz, journalist, entrepreneur, and co-founder of Building H.

Building H is an index that evaluates companies’ and products’ impact on five key behaviors: eating, sleeping, physical activity, social engagement, and time spent outdoors. Goetz and his co-founder Steve Downs were responding to the need for a method that scores companies, products, and services according to their health impact.

However, lessons from the last decade of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing show that indices meant to demand accountability can instead provide cover to companies as they selectively highlight their progress and “greenwash” their overall impact. So, while negative performance indices won’t make researchers many friends, they may be more effective.

“CEOs are extremely sensitive to a bad image,” said Luigi Zingales, professor of entrepreneurship and finance at University of Chicago. “So, they don't want to be at the top of any shame list, even if this list is limited.”

In either case, there are significant barriers to making these measurements matter. The true impact of today’s decisions will take years to see—too long for any mechanism to tie definitively one product’s impact to outcomes. As such, investors have not prioritized the health impacts of their products or services over short-term profits.

“However, one of the advantages that I see of indexes like Building H is that they can provide guidance and benchmarks that help investors see the impact,” said Zingales.

Until investor incentives and public health find a way to co-exist, raising public awareness about a company’s impact could be the most effective way to elicit positive change.

“Consumers are increasingly aware that the products and services they use do have health impacts. For example, we’ve certainly seen this with digital technologies and the connection to negative mental health impacts—that has exploded in the public consciousness over the past couple of years.” said Goetz. “We want to tether that back to ways that the companies can take action.”

Go deeper on this topic with HBHI’s 'Conversations on the Business of Health' webinar from Oct. 14. Watch it here.