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The History of Corporate Social Responsibility in Direct Selling

Nancy Tobler resized

One of my favorite things about direct selling is the emphasis we place on social responsibility. Direct selling companies are often dedicated to causes and in some cases the cause itself is the foundation on which the whole organization was built. Corporate social responsibility comes in two forms. One is doing good by donating a percent of sales to worthy causes. The second is to donate a portion of sales for a special product to a cause.

From the beginning of direct sales, companies embraced both types of social responsibility. For example, since the 1990s, Avon has supported breast cancer research with over $800 million in donations. Other companies built their product line based on a cause. Amway and Shaklee both started out selling products that were good for the environment. In the 1950’s environmentally safe products were not readily available at traditional retail outlets. A more recent example is Trades of Hope. The Trades of Hope product line is composed entirely of artisanal goods made by women in difficult circumstances around the world, which means their entire business model is designed to employ impoverished women.

Direct selling has a long history of working for and with causes. You could even say that the direct selling model is built on the cause of helping individuals succeed in their personal and professional lives. Traditional corporations are built on the idea that the company receives the primary benefit from the worker. The worker belongs to the company during company hours (Biggart, 1989). Most direct selling companies focus on the cause of self-improvement. Training is an integral part of direct selling. Company and distributor sponsored trainings vary from how to build a business to how to find joy in your life.

Throughout direct selling history, companies have sought to be socially responsible. In 1886, Avon set out a list of principles that includes “We will honor the responsibilities of corporate citizenship by contributing to the well-being of the society in which we function” (Mayer & Ellis, 1995, p. 8). Since the 1950s and 1960s, the industry has supported women as they sought to work in an environment where they were valued. Today 74% of distributors are women. In addition to being distributors, women have founded direct selling companies to create rewards and career paths for women. Mary Kay Ash (Mary Kay Cosmetics) and Mary Crowley (Home Interiors & Gifts, Inc) are two examples of companies that provided women with a way to move up and be rewarded based on their efforts rather than being restricted—by their gender—to low income and low prestige jobs (Mayer & Ellis, 1995).

Direct selling companies take the opportunity to foster goodwill and good works toward distributors, customers, and employees. From the beginnings of Avon to the socially responsible products of the 1960s to the modern companies trying to change the world, we can take pride in our industry.


Biggart, N. W. (1989). Charismatic capitalism: Direct selling organizations in America. University of Chicago Press.

Mayer, M. L., & Ellis, K. (1995). Direct Selling in the United States: A Commentary and Oral History. Direct Selling Education Foundation.

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