Is it really worth the time and resources to make your company a recognized sustainability champion? And how on earth should you go about it? In this concise and practical book, Brendan May demonstrates why the companies that will be fit for purpose in 2020 are addressing sustainability now, and then outlines a strategy for how your business can do the same. May draws on 15 years experience on the front line of sustainable businessas Chief Executive of a business-NGO partnership, as an environmental campaigner and as advisor to multinational corporations on sustainability strategy and communicationsand outlines the emerging trends that will change the rules of the game forever. By the time you've finished this book, you'll know who you need to know, what you need to know, and the dos and don'ts in the quest to make your business a true champion of sustainability.
About the Author
Brendan May is Founder of the Robertsbridge Group, a leading sustainability consultancy formed in 2010 by a number of prominent environmental thinkers. He was previously Managing Director of Weber Shandwick’s global sustainability practice for 5 years. He is now UK Chairman of the Rainforest Alliance, and sits on the organization’s global board of directors. In the past few years Brendan has advised a range of multinational companies on sustainability issues, including Unilever, Nestlé, Coca Cola, PepsiCo, Sainsbury’s, UPS, Interserve Plc, Orange Mobile, American Airlines, Cargill, Ecolab, Alliance Boots and Kimberly Clark Professional.
Read an Excerpt
How to Make Your Company a Recognised Sustainability Champion
By Brendan May
Do SustainabilityCopyright © 2012 Brendan May
All rights reserved.
Who You Need to Know
Understanding the landscape
MANY COMPANIES START OUT in sustainability with entirely the wrong motivation. It often takes years of false starts until eventually the penny drops. This is often down to giving a senior employee the 'CSR' remit, usually after some issue, crisis or other that has concerned the Chief Executive (if you're lucky) or, more typically, a communications or public affairs director.
On the face of it, why or how a company starts to see sustainability on its issues horizon doesn't matter per se. As long as it is on the radar, that's surely the key thing. But actually, the motivation for aspiring to sustainability matters enormously. As does the choice of internal resource to get things moving. This is because without the deep understanding that sustainability is not a compliance necessity, an optional marketing tool or a niche effort that can apply to a couple of products, it will never work for a business. Sustainability is in fact the entire basis of all future commerce, whatever it's called. It's about being resilient in a world whose supply chains are going to creak and in some cases crack under the pressure of climate change, biodiversity loss, water stress and growing consumption. It's about reducing volatility, risk and litigation. It's about connecting with consumers who are already struggling to make the most of limited resources (ecologically and financially). It's about competitive edge, the best suppliers, the most loyal customers and attracting the best talent into the workforce. And yes, in the long run, there are hundreds of marketing and communications benefits too.
Importantly, sustainability is not just a luxury that is all very well for cash-rich Western businesses (if such companies still exist), but of limited relevance to emerging giants in the new economic hothouses of Brazil, China and India. In fact, as countries on the front line of imminent planetary meltdown, the sustainable business agenda may well expand faster there than in the regions where it has been talked about, if not implemented, for far longer. I often hear people complain that we green types in Europe don't understand the economic needs of other parts of the world. Increasingly, it's in the other parts of the world that they are most desperate to find political, economic and environmental solutions to a crisis only dismissed in the lunatic fringes of some political movements here and there. Whilst the Tea Party tendency brews away, the real world is talking about where the next cups of tea will actually come from, and at what price. So motivation matters. A lot.
Most corporate communications executives have spent their careers talking to three key audiences: regulators, media and investors. They are seasoned in their lobbying of government, their cultivation of journalists and, in the case of publicly owned companies, their schmoozing with shareholders and analysts. In large global companies these three activities occupy virtually all communications resources. Indeed the task is so great that additional resources are often assigned to an army of public relations firms across multiple markets to help execute the company's external relations programme.
The problem is that the audiences in which most corporate communications executives are so well versed are precisely those with the least knowledge of and engagement with progressive sustainability. You will find more sophisticated environmental knowledge in a company that 'gets it' than in the whole of the EU's environmental QANGOs combined. Only very niche journalists pay much attention to the topic, and are mostly interested in companies doing things badly rather than well. And everybody knows (although few environmentalists admit it) that most investors couldn't care less about planetary survival as long as the quarterly results are up to scratch and they can make a good living out of corporate growth.
It is staggering how little companies, new to this agenda, understand the landscape in which they must operate (and of course I am not talking about the growing ranks of sustainability leaders who have highly sophisticated channels of communication with all stakeholders). At best, they might be aware of the pesky 'NGO movement' (more on which in the next chapter). But the lens through which they believe their company is viewed is essentially a cosy and containable trio in which investors, media and regulators rule supreme, and should be the primary focus of attention. They could not be more wrong.
Sometimes a company will wisely not consign the sustainability effort simply to the communications department. They will require technical or operational people to play their part, or even lead the mission. Here again, there is often vast ignorance of the landscape. For whilst operational people make up for the technical shortfalls in PR departments, they seldom possess basic communications skills. Often, companies are doing quite good work, but it is viewed as so dry and boring by communicators that no one outside ever hears about it. And when a crisis strikes, it is not unusual for the PR people in charge of the defensive war room not even to know which expert within their own company to contact for the 'line to take'. The chances are they've never even met them.
Understanding the real landscape a company must navigate is the first step to avoiding this farce. The theatre of sustainable business is crowded, with a few leading actors and a vast cast of extras, some of whom matter to the overall plot much more than others. Broadly, the sustainable business landscape could be defined, in no particular order, as follows:
Government and associated regulatory authorities
Institutional investors and shareholders
Solutions-driven NGOs such as certification, auditing and labelling bodies
Trade associations/business coalitions
Media (print/broadcast and social)
Miscellaneous key opinion-formers (e.g. former NGO leaders)
Peer companies and competitors
Business to business customers
Rankings and awards systems
Specialist advisors and consultancies
Collectively, these categories form the fabric of the canvas on which corporations must paint their version of environmentalism and ethics. They represent thousands of individuals, if not hundreds of thousands. Some matter more than others, and this varies considerably from one country to the next. It is true that the main hubs of opinion forming thought still lie in the UK, Brussels and North America, and this is why leading companies focus much of their efforts in promoting their credentials in these territories. New York, Washington, DC, London and Brussels are major hubs for many key NGOs, not least because they are also important media centres. But France, Germany, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries also enjoy a vibrant and active campaigning scene, even if it is more localised and concentrated than in the more international hotspots. Increasingly, emerging giants such as India are developing their own frameworks for responsible business. There are 'CSR' or green business associations across Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe. They will only grow as global challenges intensify. Moreover, companies that embrace sustainability must do so in every nook and cranny of the world in which they operate. For one acid river in a remote part of Africa can be all over Twitter and on the front pages of traditional media within 24 hours.
The key point to remember is that the sustainable business community (and it really is a community) is constantly talking to itself, forming judgments about your business or sector. Retailers hate nothing more than a surprise attack from a campaigning NGO alleging their supply chains are responsible for dead orang-utans, the slaughter of turtles or the destruction of the Amazon. The retail sector is therefore in constant dialogue with campaigning groups. Media depend on campaigners to give them good stories. Campaigners depend on good policy thinking to make their case, from think-tanks and academic institutions. Increasingly the scientific community is finding its proper voice in these debates. Twitter is awash with CSR and green advocates, providing the perfect channel for widespread dissemination of good or bad news. Regulators, as ever caught in the headlights, try to keep up and frame policy around what others have already achieved as they sat and watched. Sometimes they become pivotal, but far too rarely. All these audiences are influencing each other, and building up a collective view about priority issues, who is leading, who is following the pack, and who is lagging far behind.
You may think that your sector or company or brand is immune from this 'chatter'. But someone, somewhere, is watching you. They may be developing a new ranking of ethics or sustainability for your sector. You may find yourself near the top. If you've never engaged on these issues, more likely you're at the bottom. If your customer base is other businesses rather than direct consumers, then be aware that those customers are likely to be much closer to emerging trends and debates than you are. The less you engage with this vast landscape, the harder it will be to persuade people your business is a sustainability champion. The more you engage, the better decisions your company will make, and the more independent voices will praise those decisions.
Given the scale of the audience, the inter-relationships between the players and the vastly divergent agendas, motivations and types of stakeholder, it is impossible to please, or even reach, all of them. The key is to be highly strategic about tiering, prioritising and engaging in the sustainability landscape.
There are often false starts. Amongst the most common is the temptation to respond to every ranking questionnaire, with little benefit in the medium to long term. Some of the world's worst and most polluting companies have often topped sustainability rankings. Enough said.
Talking with every NGO in a country may give a good impression, but if there is no follow-through there is little to be gained, for a company or an NGO. Except in the case of NGOs who refuse corporate donations, once dialogue starts you can find yourself on the end of endless proposals for funding, cause-related marketing initiatives and 'partnership opportunities' that offer little by way of substance and are really fundraising, masquerading as boosting your CSR credentials. In general, these are not a good use of sparse resources.
It is also important to identify where real gaps for leadership opportunities exist. This avoids the 'me too' problem, in which your company is seen as playing catch up with rivals who tackled a particular issue before you did. That is absolutely not to say you shouldn't tackle the issue (these challenges can only be solved if whole sectors adopt better standards), but it may be that you choose not to amplify your progress on it too much when there are obvious other agendas where you can be the leader and 'own' the topic. That ownership will be derived from where your company's biggest problem areas lie, and therefore the biggest opportunities to drive positive, lasting change.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly of all, if you spend more than half of your time in the office looking in, your journey will end in disappointment. It is now clearly established that companies that actively pursue dialogue, attend the right events, meet the right people and bring the best learning from experts back into their organisation are the businesses everybody talks about as sustainability champions. It is critical that you, your CEO, your communications director, your board and your operational executives live and breathe sustainability and talk about it wherever they are and whenever they have an audience of any kind. This requires resource investment, but it pays off. The Economist, when it finally started to accept the notion of corporate responsibility, put it best: 'If you're not at the table, you're on the menu' http://www. economist.com/node/9217982.
The business of NGO relations
It's tempting, given the multiplicity of audiences described in the previous chapter, to lump NGOs into one simple category. Many companies do this and these are the companies with the weakest relationships with campaigners, critics and the sustainability world at large. For other than a charitable status registration number, many NGOs are as different from each other as can be. Of course, NGOs sometimes form highly effective coalitions on particular issues. But the NGO sector is increasingly fragmented, in some cases deeply divided, and several caricatures are emerging, which are dealt with below. One thing is certain: the mindset (often, but not always, of a communications director) that NGOs are just a bunch of people that need to be 'dealt with' is the mindset of a person who will never help their company become a sustainability champion. Many of the world's greatest conservationists have themselves reached awkward and in some cases hostile attitudes to the NGO movement. It is a far from simple picture. But engagement deep within and far around this fascinating world is a non-negotiable part of becoming a sustainability champion.
First, we must understand this corner of the landscape. There are articles and chapters aplenty on the topic of the NGO sector. They are all useful, but I shall attempt to use humour to outline my perceptions of the NGO world. I allow myself some exaggeration, although I am not sure these caricatures, which I first outlined some time ago in Ethical Corporationhttp://www. ethicalcorp.com/communications-reporting/ngos-and-activists-zealot-hypocrite-or-genuine-article, are that far removed from reality.
The tunnel-visioned zealot
The zealot believes that there is only one way to solve social or environmental problems. Theirs. Nothing else will do. Zealots struggle when other campaigners suggest an alternative. If they attack their rival brethren, they look petty and silly. If they do nothing, they risk losing share of voice (and indeed market). The zealot's solution is to grit its teeth, smiling politely in meetings when their rival is mentioned. But underneath lurks a bubbling rage that if unleashed would kill any activist or corporate executive within a five-mile radius. We have zealots to thank for waking up the business world to ethics. We have progressive businesses to thank for rejecting the zealots' single-mindedness.
The hypocrite will opine endlessly about the need to eradicate carbon from the universe, live entirely off local nature's bounty, and preferably not go anywhere. This NGO will present an apocalyptic vision of a doomed world, and will be masterful at persuading donors to invest in magnifying our collective depression. Yet its executives will not be seen in electric cars, but more likely found 'using up some air miles' in the business class lounges of Heathrow, JFK and airports within easy reach of the tropical havens where they hold 'global retreats' so their staff can better plan how to make us all feel terrified and miserable.
The angry activist
This NGO is lethal. Its relaxed and courteous demeanour masks a cunning intent to 'screw' companies that don't agree to their demands. Driven by real passion, this NGO practises what it preaches, and pops up at the most unfortunate times for the greenwashing corporate laggard. You really are best off not ignoring this lot. Sometimes factual accuracy can be a casualty of this activist's zeal, but the political savvy and steely courage of this type of NGO means it continues to punch well above its weight. They are giants in the world of PR stunts. Ignoring them is not an option.
The one-man band
This person will never give up. You imagine even their tombstone will be devoted to a slogan boycotting the company they have been campaigning against all their life. There is virtually nothing any human can do to persuade this activist that the problem was either dealt with about 10 years ago, or is being dealt with now. The activist needs to keep the flag flying for their cause no matter what the personal or financial toll on their life. Worryingly for corporations, this activist has endless hours to fill on Twitter. You have to admire their persistence.
The smiling salesman
The well-cut suit and iPhone give this one away. This NGO is a slick, well-oiled, marketing machine. Money is king, and we want lots of it, please. This NGO offers corporations 'account managers' and 'client reviews'. No, it's not a PR firm; it's a charity trying to be 'business-like' because it thinks that's what the business world wants to hear. As corporations become ever more sophisticated in developing their own responses to the environmental crisis, there will be less room in the market for this type of organisation. Anything for a bit of grassroots authenticity, please!
The genuine article
This type of group is not world famous. Explaining what it does isn't easy, because it's tackling complex challenges and doing so for the long-term gain, not the short-term headline. It is staffed by thoughtful experts, rooted in ground-level change and commands the respect of campaigners and business marketers alike. It sometimes struggles for share of voice because its programmes mean more to the developing world than to a London or New York-based subeditor. Some of what it does is quite dry, even boring. It's hard to explain at a dinner party. But it's making a real difference.
Excerpted from How to Make Your Company a Recognised Sustainability Champion by Brendan May. Copyright © 2012 Brendan May. Excerpted by permission of Do Sustainability.
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Table of Contents
Abstract About the Author PrefaceIntroduction 1) Who You Need to Know Understanding the Landscape Deciding How, When and Whom to Engage in Dialogue The Business of NGO Relations The tunnel-visioned zealot The hypocrite The angry activist The one-man band The smiling salesman The genuine article The overfed giant The critical friend Internal Resistance and How to Overcome It The far too busy and important CEO Traits of a CEO Sustainability Champion The cynical finance director The blinkered marketeer The threatened and hurt Recalcitrant managers PART 1 summary 2) What you need to know How not to do it The Golden Rules for Success 10 Golden Rules Corporate Sustainability is Ripe for Trailblazers The Future: Changing agendas & emerging trends Part 2 summary Notes