How Molson Coors's tiny team creates big sustainability impact

How Molson Coors's tiny team creates big sustainability impact

It’s been a heady year so far for sustainability efforts at Molson Coors (NYSE: TAP). The brewing company was recently named beverage sector leader on the international Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI). It also made the DJSI North America list for the second straight year.

"Molson Coors is focused on continuing to make progress improving what we call 'Our Beer Print,' which details our impacts on our communities, people and the environment," said company president and CEO Peter Swinburn in a press release. "Continued recognition on DJSI demonstrates our ongoing commitment to advance year after year."

But this leadership in sustainability efforts is all the more remarkable when you consider the size of Molson Coors’ sustainability group.

"We have a very small central team," said chief corporate responsibility officer Barton Alexander.  "It’s really me -- and I have one person who works as an analyst who helps me. But we see corporate responsibility as an integral part of every employee’s job in the company."

Alexander believes his job is to embed the notion of sustainability throughout the organization. He chairs the company’s corporate responsibility council, made up of vice presidents from divisions across the firm, including sales and marketing, compliance/ethics, finance, innovation, technical governance and water resources.

"Like those with formal power, my success depends upon my ability to influence others," he said. "I start with listening, not talking. These are people who know their functions and believe in the values of the company. My role isn't to tell them what to do, but to partner with them in finding ways to improve."

Alexander describes his job as being a facilitator, coach and sometime provocateur. "In our company culture, we're encouraged to 'challenge the expected,'" he said. "For me, that means asking a lot of questions. For example, when I learned about our environmental targets for 2012, I was pleased, but pushed further: Where do we want to be in five years, in 10 years; what is our ambition? I encourage my colleagues to think beyond the incremental change that can be achieved with tweaks to goals that may require innovations not yet thought about."

Photo of beer bottles by Jumnong  via Shutterstock.

Alexander has outlined some key elements to successfully integrating corporate responsibility into businesses with lean resources.

Leadership support

“We have a CEO who really understands that how we make money is important, and that making it responsibly and ethically is important to our people and to our customers and to beer consumers,” he said. “And the whole senior team of the company is lined up around that.” Corporate responsibilty performance is also included in the company's annual and long-term planning -- with regular performance reports given to executive leaders, the corporate board and investors.

Strategic alignment with business goals

Alexander describes this element as positioning corporate responsibility with corporate ambitions; as characterized by what Molson Coors calls BHAGs, or Big Hairy Ambitious Goals. Two of those goals are targeted around profit and brand growth. Another involves engaging company employees, who are seen as essential to the firm’s success. Molson Coors also aims to be recognized for having a world class corporate responsibility program.

Measuring

Molson Coors takes both internal and external measures of its sustainability performance. It surveys its employees about whether the company is being responsible enough on social, ethical and environmental issues. And in turn, according to Alexander, employees feel more engaged in those issues. Externally, the company takes pride in its place on the DJSI, and the fact that it is meeting its long and short-term targets for issues such as carbon reduction and water use.

Accountability

“Accountability is really critical,” said Alexander. "We talk about both our achievements and our setbacks. So we're accountable overall." A prime example is the company’s corporate responsibility council, which meets formally four times a year. The vice presidents on the council, he notes, “each understand what they’re doing, but the council allows them to understand how what they’re doing impacts and aligns with their colleagues in other parts of the business.”

Seeking outside help

Like other companies dealing with tightened budgets, Molson Coors has become more selective when it comes to using consultants. They are used for more specific tasks, said Alexander, “like how do we create the right system for holding our suppliers accountable, for their ethical and human rights and environmental performance. How do we do that? What’s the best practice in that? So what we’ve used consultant help is to improve the core business processes and embed sustainability within them.”

Being honest with yourself

All companies have challenges and problems, but owning up to those issues -- both inside and outside the organization -- underscores company values and helps improve the situation. "Sure, sometimes it is a case of persuasion, with the data, ouside experts and even field trips," said Alexander. "But really, most of the team gets the importance of sustainability. They are the experts, and I learn more from them than I could ever teach."

Celebrating successe

"We’re going to make sure the people who are responsible for [successes] across the organization got recognized for that," said Alexander.  "That can be for something like having world class water efficiency in our Tadcaster U.K. brewery [or] being one of the best employers in Canada."

It’s also important, Alexander said, for employees and management to see these goals as critical to their company’s success. He notes businesses that sell Molson Coors products, like WalMart and Tesco in the U.K., "want to deliver to their consumers the fact that they’re buying and selling… products that are made by an ethical, responsible and environmentally sensitive company." As an example he points to the Molson Canadian Red Leaf Project, which organizes and engages consumers in environmental cleanups across the country.

But first, you need to get the basics right. In the early days of establishing a sustainability program, Alexander says there was some push-back from company senior leaders. "Do we have to go across all these different dimensions of the business, our ethics, our environmental responsibility, our alcohol responsibility, our community engagement, the engagement with our people?" he remembers them asking. "And all this supply chain, that’s a lot on the plate. Can’t we just pick one or two things and do them well? And my answer was 'yeah you can, and a lot of companies do, and that’s really what green-washing is.' So I think there was a challenge at the beginning of getting people to understand as a whole that this really needed to be a corporate-wide, a baseline improvement first."

And once those baseline elements are established, Alexander said, the next critical step is sustaining that improvement. "There’s obviously work to be done, we’re going to get after the challenges. And it’s leveraging this for our competitive advantage. It’s how can we take this work and make it more meaningful in terms of our cost management, in terms of our employee engagement, in terms of our relationships with our key retail customers, and in delighting beer drinkers."