Trees sun blaring corporate sustainability image

Have you ever noticed there are generally two ways of approaching things in business and life? (1) Half-ass it. (2) Pursue excellence.

We’ve seen this ring true in the realm of sustainability and corporate responsibility. Some companies transform their organizations valiantly, taking a deep dive into the very essence of their organization. Others roll out a Trojan horse of a marketing campaign, merely a front for some of the biggest offenses in their organizations.

We’re all about the pursuit of excellence here, so we think it’s worth noting the characteristics that define the path to excellence in corporate sustainability and responsibility. Through our client work and ongoing research, we’ve noticed several characteristics shared by organizations leading the charge.

1. Sustainability isn’t tied solely to surface-level tactics. It’s a deep-rooted organizational value driving business strategy.

The best organizations look at sustainability through a holistic lens and see it as an all-encompassing aspect of their business strategy. Sustainability isn’t a one-off marketing campaign or end of year report. It impacts every aspect of the business.

For example, the clothing company Patagonia began their journey of becoming a more responsible company when workers were getting sick in their first store location. Formaldehyde from the finish of the cotton clothes stored there was the culprit. The company set out to make more than just this aspect of the company right. As described on their website, their self-examination, “moved to what happens in Patagonia’s name in every step of the supply chain, from crop to fabric to finished garment.” Today, responsibility is at the core of the company’s very ethos, continuing to influence each piece of what the company does.

The home care product company Method too has taken a bold approach. As founders Adam Lowry and Eric Ryan share in The Method Method, the company, “actually changed its articles of incorporation to expand the fiduciary duty of the officers of the company to include social and environmental stakeholders. It’s not simply ‘triple bottom line’; it binds us legally to the ethics we espouse, assuring shareholders that the environment and social conditions are considered in every decision we make.” This legal act makes a serious statement about what drives the company and directly ties this sense of responsibility to something far deeper than mere surface-level tactics.

2. Sustainability isn’t contained to one arm of the organization; it’s an organization-wide conversation.

Tacking on another siloed team isn’t the answer in organizations of excellence. As Richard Branson notes in his book Screw Business as Usual, “It should no longer be about typical ‘corporate social responsibility’ where the ‘responsibility’ bit is usually the realm of a small team buried in a basement office — now it should be about every single person in a business taking responsibility to make a difference in everything they do, at work and in their personal lives.”

Leading organizations embed sustainability into the role of each and every person within the organization. For instance, Method actively teaches sustainability as a business skill and gives employees the tools to integrate it effectively in their work. As described in The Method Method, “At Method, sustainability is everyone’s job. To achieve this, we teach it, train it and develop it … just as you would any basic business skill.”

3. Sustainability isn’t viewed as a trend to follow, but rather a continuous conversation that shapes the long-term picture of the organization.

The best organizations possess a lasting commitment to the conversation, seeking long-term solutions and reaping long-term benefits. Mark Dwight sums it up well in an Inc. article stating, “Sustainability is a journey, not a destination. Once you embrace the fact that sustainable business practices save money, simplify operations, and build brand equity, you will continually seek new ways to embrace them.”

Even organizations largely applauded for “doing it right” humbly recognize they haven’t yet arrived at the sustainability destination, nor will they ever really. This is true of Patagonia, whose own website notes, “In the end, Patagonia may never be completely responsible. We have a long way to go and we don’t have a map — but we do have a way to read the terrain and to take the next step, and then the next.” That sense of humility and perseverance generates ever-deeper respect for their brand.

Adidas echoes this notion, stating on their website, “We have been working toward sustainability for many years and recognize that the task ahead of us is a marathon, not a sprint. It is about preparedness and setting the right pace, having both the drive and stamina to make the distance. And most of all, it is about endurance: overcoming setbacks and difficulties, keeping the finish line always in the forefront of our minds.”

4. Sustainability and corporate responsibility are chosen in spite of self-interests.

This attribute almost didn’t make the cut. Then, we saw it simply couldn’t be ignored. Leading organizations take actions that are clearly not prompted by self-interest. What do we mean by that?

Turning again to Patagonia, they have begun asking questions about whether consumption of goods is actually necessary or beneficial. And, they are doing so on a very public level, publishing regular thought pieces on their website. Patagonia makes consumer goods. They are challenging the very culture of consumption at the core of their business. Why? They’re clearly prompted by a greater pursuit beyond profits.

Which route will you choose?

These attributes clearly don’t amount to the easier path. Evaluation of the full supply chain alone takes a hell of a lot of work. It requires courage and openness to change to wade through the less-than-admirable practices of a business and make things right. The companies showcased here — and many beyond these — could choose to remain shielded from what they don’t know. But, they clearly aren’t content with merely taking the easy route to profit.

So, why should you take the more difficult road? Why not just shift to recycled paper, toss some money toward a philanthropic cause in the name of corporate responsibility, and call it a day?

First and foremost, this is the route with power to truly make a difference. By avoiding it, you clearly fail to do the full good of which you are capable as an organization. We’d hope that would be enough.

But, beyond that, turning a blind eye clashes with the transparency demanded in the marketplace today. One way or the other, the conversation will come to the forefront of your organization. It’s better to out yourself and take honest efforts to make things right than wait for a consumer-driven exposé to mar your brand and reputation. Much like the examples put forth by Patagonia, Adidas and Method, as discussed here, transparency and humility actually strengthen your brand, even when you aren’t perfect in your pursuit. The sense of trust evoked becomes quite priceless.

Lastly, as research is now showing, corporate sustainability is affecting the bottom line in positive ways. Branson celebrates this in Screw Business as Usual, noting, “The good news is, businesses that are taking this path are also starting to see the rewards, clearly demonstrated by some of the tracking being done by the global business tracking company FTSE: ‘Companies that consistently manage and measure their responsible business activities outperformed their FTSE 350 peers on total shareholder return in seven out of the last eight years.’”

In the end, the choice is yours. What story is sustainability going to have in your organization? Which route will you choose?

Resources referenced
Branson, Richard. Screw Business as Usual. New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2011. Print.
Dwight, Mark. “How To Build A Sustainable Business.” Inc. Nov. 2013: n. pag. Inc. Web.
“Patagonia – Becoming a Responsible Company.” Patagonia – Becoming a Responsible Company. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 July 2014. <http://www.patagonia.com/us/patagonia.go?assetid=2329>.
Ryan, Eric, Adam Lowry, and Lucas Conley. The Method Method: 7 Obsessions That Helped Our Scrappy Start-up Turn an Industry Upside down. New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2011. Print.
“Sustainability: General Approach.” Adidas. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 July 2014. <http://www.adidas-group.com/en/sustainability/managing-sustainability/general-approach/#/our-sustainability-strategy/>.
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