Over the last 20 years, we have shifted from functionally centric brands to emotionally centric-brands to values-centric brands. Today, brands must be inspirational in a socially responsible way. It is no longer enough for brands to define themselves in terms of what they are: they must make a statement—environmentally, culturally, and socially—about what they want to be. *
Whatever we think of capitalism or corporations, (and in my own case, I created the P2P Foundation after having lost any hope that corporations could be the agents of positive social change without sufficient pressure from civil society), it’s hard to imagine a changed world without its key organisations having changing for the better as well.
So, even as we have to be mindful of greenwashing and other forms of Public Relations deceit, (or doing one good amongst a set of ‘bads’), corporations are feeling that pressure, and are adapting and changing, to variying degrees.
In World Changing, Rachel Botsman has reviewed some of the exemplary corporations:
“A survey of companies with reputations for nurturing best-in-class cultures of sustainability such as Timberland, Seventh Generation, Eileen Fisher, Patagonia and Stonyfield Farm, as well as less niche (and nimble) multinationals like Nike, Wal-Mart and the leading British retailer Marks & Spencer’s which are staying relevant by transforming their old business mindset, reveals some common principles that permeate entire companies in ways that permits employees to experience and view sustainability as an integral part of everything they do and how they do it. So, what are these sustainable companies doing right? Put another way, what are they doing differently?
* Abolishing the term or notion of “Corporate Social Responsibility”
Even if the CSR nomenclature still lingers in specific shareholder reports, these sustainable companies do not view sustainability as a responsibility, as “risk and reputation management” or as a reporting requirement. Rather, they embrace it as a (if not the) source of innovation for a better and more profitable company. Eileen Fisher actually uses the term “Corporate Consciousness,” and Unilever istransitioning to “Corporate Social Vitality.” Both terms signal that sustainability should be the source of energy, experimentation and inspiration that fuels a company’s growth and culture.
Sustainable companies are also generally opposed to having a separate CSR department –- a move that can signal to employees that responsibility for sustainability is limited to the job of the designated and knowledgeable few.
* Shifting from linear to systems-based thinking
Sustainable companies are committed to enabling their employees to change the way they think about things towards a new culture of systems thinking where everything is connected. This perspective allows employees to see not just their organization as a larger whole (instead of compartmentalized departments) but it also empowers them to develop an innate understanding of how their company is interconnected with the world around them.
For example, Wal-Mart recognized that about 90 percent of its environmental impacts occur deep within their supply chain. To address the inefficiencies at the root, Wal-Mart formed networks across formerly disparate business units from buildings to fleet, to waste to packaging, to food and agriculture. This example helps train employees to address systemic barriers to sustainability that are interconnected.
* Teaching employees new types of collaboration
Sustainable businesses require a whole new level and type of engagement with local communities and governments, non-profits and even (at times) competitors. To support this collaborative “open source” way of working, employees should be given new channels of knowledge-interchange and encouraged to open up best-practices and learning to the rest of the industry.
This often requires repeated reassurance that competitors will eventually share back and that it is in the company’s longer term interests to get the whole industry designing better products and services as a whole. For example, M&S has started the “M&S Supplier Exchange,” which is used to share best practices, stimulate innovation and even to help suppliers secure the funds needed to develop more sustainable production methods.
* Showing respect for employees
As Jeffrey Hollender, CEO of Seventh Generation recently noted, “It starts with how you answer the phone, how you treat the people who clean the office…these are the easy things we can do.” A culture of respect helps imbue employees with a holistic approach to business, environment and society.
For example, Wal-Mart introduced its “Personal Sustainability Project” (PSP) in 2007 to help its Associates integrate sustainability into their lives by making changes to their everyday habits. Progress toward PSP goals is measured by counting daily activities like healthier eating and lifestyle habits, replacing old appliances with energy-efficient ones, using environmentally-friendly and non-toxic home cleaning products, and getting involved in projects in one’s community. PSPs reflect the “shift in Wal-Mart’s perspective towards understanding how physical health, psychological wellbeing, social connections and lifelong learning about one’s environment feeds the health of a business.”
* Empowering employees by helping them to make a difference
From the very first interview until the exit interview, sustainable companies continuously reinforce the need for all employees to be responsible and accountable for sustainability, and to view their efforts in a larger company context. For example, Timberland’s “Path of Service” program allows employees 40 hours of annual paid time off to work on service projects in communities.
* Setting goals that challenge the imagination
Though practical goals are important, it is also important to set goals that raise the bar for sustainability in business. For example, Nike has set its ‘North Star’ as “becoming a totally ‘closed loop’ company where materials from a Nike shoe, for example, will end up becoming the materials for a Nike shirt.” Imagining this as the end result shows employees that their steps along the way are positive progress on an ultimate journey toward ideal sustainability, and encourages constant innovation rather than resting on the laurels of previous accomplishments.
* Using transparency to solve problems
Sustainable companies make transparency work for them by involving their employees, shareholders and customers in the process of exposing and solving problems. This wider community helps by asking questions, challenging assumptions and devising solutions.
For example, the opening page of Seventh Generation’s 2007 Corporate Consciousness Report leads with a frank admission of the company’s failure to reveal to consumers and key stakeholders the problems with purging dioxane from Seventh Generation products. As Hollender states, “by exposing problems, transparency begins to solve them.”