By Carol Essex
Vice President of Business Development and Marketing
Hill & Knowlton, Europe, Middle East and Africa
By Stuart Smith
Chairman, Corporate Communications and Healthcare
Hill & Knowlton, UK
"A sustainable enterprise is built to last; protected and enhanced by a recognised positive reputation; rooted in a foundation of responsible behaviour"
After years on the periphery, the concept of ‘sustainability’ is now becoming central to business thinking. This has profound implications for business strategy and for branding and communications.
But for many the concept remains fuzzy. Is it about good works at the expense of the profit motive? Is it about tackling climate change? Is it about being a good employer?
The emerging business consensus is that sustainability is not just the latest CSR fad. It is as much about making profits - over the long term – as it is about workplace standards, community involvement and environmental awareness. The idea of the sustainable enterprise extends this concept to a holistic view of how companies grow profitably whilst at the same time; behave responsibly towards the marketplace, workplace, their societies and the environment in which they operate.
As a senior international banker friend once put it:
“We’re certainly not a charity; we’re here to make money. But a profitable bank needs people with disposable income living in functioning civil societies that are not continually wracked by crime, disaster, disease and debt.. It is a simple matter of taking a wider, longer term view of our self interest.”
But ‘sustainability’ is not a simple matter to manage. Large retailers now face literally hundreds of separate sustainability issues ranging from labour standards in developing countries to commitment renewable energy technologies. Financial services companies have to consider ethical investment criteria and their relationship with customers. FMCG brands face a myriad of questions around sustainable supply chains. The consumer electronics sector faces major challenges around energy efficiency, toxic production chemicals and product disposal.
The pressure is increasing. Many sectors have been run ragged by the sustainability debate in recent years and in response have put together strategies, programmes and coalitions. Although a bit of peace and quiet might be desirable, it's extremely improbable.
The sustainability agenda just won't stay still. It is constantly shifting as media NGOs and governments chase each other’s tails around environmental, social, and workplace issues. What seem like solutions suddenly become liabilities. In the environmental area for example, where the debate is currently the most high-profile, biofuels once seemed the great hope for low carbon transport, the next year they are angrily denounced for destroying the rainforest and robbing the hungry of food. Carbon offsets were a good idea before a string of media exposes challenged the whole concept of paying others to take on a carbon burden.
There is also a plethora of voluntary CSR standards, ecolabel certifications and green business coalitions that all seem to offer guidance and rules but none of which can be taken as the fixed standard to which businesses can operate, especially across borders.
On climate change the bar is about to be set even higher. International coverage will continue apace as new (and even scarier) science emerges and governments – including a newly eco-aware USA Government - frantically negotiate in the run up to the Copenhagen meeting in December 2009 where the successor to the Kyoto Protocol will be agreed.
For businesses coming to terms with the sustainability concept there are five simple (perhaps inconvenient) truths and imperatives:
- Be true to the standards you choose - there are no fixed rules which guarantee you have got it right and becoming a sustainable enterprise is not a tick box exercise
- Don’t paint yourself into a corner - you are on a journey. There will be dead ends and U-turns on the way and you will need to constantly consider alternative routes
- You can’t travel this road alone - ‘Doing’ sustainability on your own is not an option. You will need guides and partners - not just for communications advice - but civil society stakeholders that share your concerns and can help shape your strategy
- Nothing very useful can be achieved in secret - becoming a sustainable enterprise cannot be achieved behind closed doors. The stakeholders in your business need to buy in, employees need to share the mission, key audiences like government, NGOs and business will need to be fully briefed. Most important of all - customers will need to understand why and how the company is actually working to become a sustainable enterprise
- Vive la difference - in each country there are different issues at the top of the agenda and these will constantly change. In Finland it’s currently Biofuels and zero-energy construction, in France working conditions and food product quality are the topics hitting the headlines.
Cynicism around brand claims in this area is likely to increase. In the past many businesses have simply showcased the latest ‘green’ initiative to get positive media coverage and it’s no surprise that this often gets ignored, or worse, results in accusations of green-washing.
External communications should therefore be fully proofed against such charges by engaging expert and technical opinion at an early stage and placing any communication within the framework of a public-facing, coherent strategy for the whole enterprise.
The sustainability arena is an unfolding and dynamic scene where the status quo will always be challenged. This can make it an intimidating environment for business, but the good news is it’s also an incredible opportunity for enterprises that are able to harness the energy of a movement that will increasingly shape society and commerce.