Sandy Skees is CEO of Communications4Good, a triple bottom line public relations agency that provides businesses, early stage companies and organizations with sustainability analysis, communications counseling and program implementation.
In the last three years, sustainability has moved from a little-understood term that seemed to be interchangeable with CSR (corporate social responsibility), green, eco, or environmental to an almost over-used word. Even today, there are those who claim that sustainability is simply a subset of CSR. Changing business practices and accepted definitions reveal that, as these two disciplines align and integrate, public relations professionals are ideally suited to create the new “language of goodness” that such a shift requires.
As we move into this new decade, it is increasingly clear to business, governments and NGOs that we live in an interconnected world and are interdependent. Businesses whose core strategies address social and environmental issues – in some capacity – are the first examples of solving what Bill Gates calls, “an imbalance between what people do and what the world needs.”
Sustainability on the Rise Globally
According to recent research conducted by Boston Center for Corporate Citizenship, McKinsey, and the Entrepreneurs Foundation, data consistently shows that sustainability is gaining traction inside corporations. The initial appearance and implementation of sustainability can begin inside Environment Health and Safety (EHS) departments, as a special branding and marketing campaign, within a product development task force, or as a supply chain initiative. Where it starts doesn’t matter. Once the sustainability mindset takes root inside two or more groups in a corporation, consistent and credible communications are required. A new “language of goodness” that incorporates social, environmental and profit programs, and creates linkages between them to accelerate change and increase benefits.
A Shifting Sustainability Definition
The Business Roundtable’s S.E.E.(Society, Environment, Economy) Change program defines sustainability as “maintaining the balance between the human need to improve the quality of life and standard of living of current generations, and the need to preserve natural resources, and ecosystems for the economic growth, and well-being of future generations.”
Many would add that these generations, both current and present, extend beyond the human species to all living species and need to be accounted for in all triple bottom line (people, planet, profit) companies. Ray Anderson, founder and Chairman of InterfaceFLOR, describes his company’s journey to sustainability in his recent book, Confessions of a Radical Industrialist. As he often says, “if we can do it, anybody can. If anybody can, then it follows that everybody can.”
McKinsey’s Global Survey on Sustainability makes it clear that the lack of a consistent definition and shared language are creating blocks to deployment within companies. The summary reveals the following,:
"overall, 20% of executives say their companies don't [have a clear definition of sustainability]. Among those that do, the definition varies: 55% define sustainability as the management of issues related to the environment (for example, greenhouse gas emissions, energy efficiency, waste management, green-product development, and water conservation). Another 48% say it includes the management of governance issues (such as complying with regulations, maintaining ethical practices, and meeting accepted industry standards), and 41% say it includes the management of social issues (for instance, working conditions and labor standards)."
Globally, CSR is a collective of all measures that produce an overall positive impact on society through economic and social actions.
Combining CSR and sustainability is more than just linking community and philanthropy efforts to environmental initiatives. Lasting business transformation -- like the radical changes espoused by Ray Anderson -- require that a business’s core strategy provide business benefits as well as social and environmental benefits.
CEOs like Anderson point to clear benefits that are driving the move to corporate sustainability: risk reduction, lowered costs, markets or revenue creation, brand value and building loyalists (i.e., transforming customers into investors, and partners into shareholders).
CSR Connecting to Emerging Initiatives
Recently, I completed a collaborative research project with the Entrepreneurs Foundation and Silicon Valley Community Foundation. According to the results, sustainability is on the radar for 73 % of the respondents and becoming increasingly more important. Eighty-two percent of these programs are considered part of the corporate strategy. The environment has been a greater focus for employees and company leaders alike as they become more aware of environmental challenges and solutions.
All the companies surveyed have corporate citizenship departments and a number of them already have sustainability or environmental programs as a key strategy within those corporate citizenship initiatives. Many of these companies feel these programs will increase in coming years. This puts Silicon Valley squarely in what many see as a global trend, the birth of a new industry sector or simply the next industrial revolution.
While 14 percent of companies assign operations ownership of their sustainability efforts, the majority of companies share the responsibility across departments. As sustainability begins to permeate companies, each department begins to determine how a combined focus on environment, society and company profits impacts all decision-making and resource allocations. Anecdotal interviews suggest that initial sustainability campaigns are growing fastest in product development and environmental programs, which are typically housed in environment, health and safety departments.
In organizations where the sustainability effort is largely environmental, the programs usually begin as employee-driven. Forty-five percent of companies report the sustainability program is employee or grassroots-driven. Employees are passionate about sustainability, and the linkage between people’s passions and corporate programs is the hallmark of a robust, influential CSR, and sustainability program.
These businesses accept their role in helping solve the immense social, and environmental challenges now facing the world. Their activity can add up to something meaningful and drive a fundamental transformation in the way business impacts society. Anecdotal information reveals that a new understanding of sustainability sees it as the combination of CSR + Environmental Initiatives + Financials to create a renewed core business strategy. A great example of this is GE’s Ecoimagination effort – more than a marketing campaign, this is business realignment.
A Language of Goodness
Authentic, transparent communications aimed at all stakeholders is a hallmark of successful sustainability programs and processes. According to Esty Environmental Partners and other eco and sustainability consulting firms, communications is one of four primary efforts: assessment, design, metrics and communication. Experts believe that communicating effectively helps reduce risk, increase traction and build the stakeholder engagement that such systemic change requires.
A new vernacular is required for describing how companies -- in alliance with NGOs and governments -- are meeting health and service needs, exceeding governance requirements, innovating product design, and increasing brand relevance through a new approach to business.
When companies shy away from talking about their actions in CSR and sustainability while framing them in a broader corporate strategy, they often cite fear of being accused of green washing. Given the growing push for ethical companies who are helping solve some of the world’s most pressing problems, doing and saying nothing over time is a greater risk.
This is the perfect place and time for PR professionals (with their sophisticated understanding of interrelated stakeholder needs) to take a leadership position. Sustainability is an innovation driver in new green/clean technology, in creative business models like for-benefit companies, and in customer experiences that meet growing demand for a sustainable lifestyle.