The sustainability challenge in business ……by definition …..Corporate sustainability is an approach aiming to create long-term stakeholder value through the implementation of a business strategy that focuses on the ethical, social, environmental, cultural, and economic dimensions of doing business.
Did you almost fall asleep reading that?
I can guarantee your average customer would have switched off. The environmental sector is riddled with jargon and bastardised phrases that really mean very little to anyone and are even more difficult to demonstrate in a meaningful way. As an environmentalist, sustainability consultant, carbon footprint auditor and very critical consumer, I do tend to close my eyes, shake my head and take a deep breath a lot. So much of what I read and see coming from corporate communications departments is uninformed, mostly unintentional greenwashing and regardless of the intention, it remains largely meaningless jargon for the average man on the street.
But the world is changing, Millennials and Generation Z are set to become the biggest group of consumers this planet has ever seen. Environmental issues are high on their agendas. They are smart, well-researched, and passionate and will probably not settle for lip service from the business world when it comes to key social and environmental issues. Not paying attention to these issues will cost you in the long run. So how can you as a corporate leader or someone in the business sector actually make a meaningful difference? Here are some ground rules for corporate social responsibility, environmental sustainability or social investment, whatever you want to call it …..
Get clear on your why.
Make it real. No jargon, no clever marketing ploys, just the honest, transparent why. If you can be clear and brutally honest about why you are taking the sustainability journey, you’ll be light years ahead of everyone else. Most companies want to perform better, make more profit, sell more products, and reach new customers. And that’s fine. Don’t try to spin a “green message” when you don’t really mean it. From a public relations perspective, this is very dangerous ground. If you’re brutally honest about 'the why' ... the rest of the journey will unfold rather organically. Trust me, most people prefer an honest, “we’re really bad at XYZ but we really want to try to make it better” than a “look at us, we’re so cool”
Trust me, most people prefer an honest, “we’re really bad at xyz but we really want to try to make it better” than a “look at us, we’re so cool”
Stop telling, start asking.
Stop telling people what you think they want to hear. We see a lot of corporate social investment projects that are a little bit too deeply entrenched as marketing campaigns to be considered authentic projects. Ask instead, find your biggest critics and have a conversation about what you can change, what you can do better and even better, and how you can help each other. Very often the non-profit and activist sectors are at constant loggerheads with the business sectors they oppose. The activists want change, the business wants a good image and growth. This is an opportunity. See it as an opportunity, take the opportunity to co-create new ideas together. We’ll never solve massive social and environmental problems through petitions and mud-slinging. It takes corporate leadership, a spot of humble pie and courage to actually do this and put yourself on the chopping block. But the benefits, if done from a position of authentic desire for a better world, will be massive. And you may just stumble on some brilliant new ideas in the process, which leads us to our next bit of advice…..
If your sustainability plan does not include something totally unique to your business and specifically meaningful to your consumers, then you’re not leading the pack. Great innovations have almost always been led by the private sector.
Stop doing trivial things for the sake of being “green” – we see a lot of this, little donations to appease or awareness events which everyone forgets the next day, all meaningless in the specific context of your business or real-world impacts. If you want to make a difference you’re going to have to do things differently, you’re going to have to innovate. Innovation means doing something totally unique. Now, go and Google “corporate sustainability reports” …..read some, they all kind of say the same thing ….with of course, a lot of jargon. If your sustainability plan does not include something totally unique to your business and specifically meaningful to your consumers, then you’re not leading the pack. Great innovations have almost always been led by the private sector. Sit down with your staff on the ground, your biggest critics, and your biggest customers, brainstorm, criticize, unpack, sweat, swear, and keep at it, but the world needs your innovative thinking now more than ever. Get this right, and you’ll have lots of interesting, meaningful things to talk about in your next sustainability report and marketing campaigns.
Looking back at history, great things have always needed people who do things differently, who innovate and lead, even when everyone else is kicking and screaming and criticising. If our planet needs anything right now, it’s leadership and innovation, historically the business world is really good at this. It’s not going to be conservationists or politicians who will ultimately help repair the state of our planet, it’s going to be business leaders who care, listen, innovate and do things differently. Take the gap, be seen and lead.