Getting Real

6 things that vex corporate sustainability execs

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Corporations are doing much to consider the future needs of society and many are stepping up even more to fill a vacuum in leadership from the public sector. We celebrate their efforts — as well we should — and thank those that are making it happen.

But no one will argue that our current aspirations, and the speed with which we’re pursuing them, are adequate. So say the half-dozen corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability leaders I interviewed last month.

CSRs are by nature and necessity both conveners and provocateurs. It is a healthy and essential tension for driving change. But although we are in the main a candid and optimistic bunch, we at times moderate our expression of frustration, anger or disappointment for fear of alienating the very people we need to bring to the table.

It is this reticence that caused a colleague to ask me, unaffiliated as I am, to communicate some of these vexations to you. Recognizing that this person may not be alone, I reached out to six sustainability leaders across a variety of industries for their insights into some of the more frustrating challenges of CSR and sustainability today.

Below are some of the things they told me. But first, please note two points. First, their concerns differed; this list does not represent consensus (or science, for that matter). Second, the interviews were conducted under background — that is, not for attribution. Examples used to reinforce a point were supplied by me, so no need to waste effort trying to figure out who brought it up.

1. We sometimes need laws to get companies to do the right thing. As sustainability professionals, we sometimes secretly root for laws that our companies may resist, perhaps because they are not up to snuff or have a general disdain for regulation. More broadly, as one interviewee framed it, the business world has a tendency to reinforce the narrative that government is the source of our problems while the free market provides the solutions, increasing headwinds to addressing some pretty clear market failures (climate change, for an easy example). Some companies do lobby for laws, both to scale impact and to limit their risks by leveling the playing (and cost) field. But mandatory standards also can create obstacles. One CSR leader pointed out that companies sometimes will declare victory upon reaching the low bar of compliance rather than setting their sights higher.

2. Transparency has run amok. We used to say in the data networking world, "The nice thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from." The problem here is that we don’t get to choose. The demand from customers, vendors and NGOs just proliferates until we spend "more time reporting and less time innovating," per one interviewee. One CSR is exasperated because inconsistent data is used to compare companies, leading to questionable conclusions; another because the "misguided energy put into where things are reported" is a distraction when companies are held accountable for everything they say publicly anyway. A third decries that some companies are able to use the deluge of information requests to obscure the lack of transparency on some things that really matter (diversity, anyone?). Bemoans one leader: "Where does it end?"

3. Fear of the spotlight slows down action. If the public is not already acutely aware of a problem, then acting on it can bring attention and damage the brand. I, for one, would like to see tech companies combine efforts to figure out how to disrupt the online slave trade. But then we’d have to admit our contribution to it.

4. Well-intended policy can result in poor regulations, but we are punished for saying so. If you lobby against poorly written regulations, you’ll be accused of aiding and abetting the bad guys. But you don’t want to lobby for regs that would have nasty unintended consequences. For example, if you felt that the SEC regulations for implementation of Section 1502 of Dodd-Frank ("Conflict Minerals") weren’t ideal because they diverted your funds from work on the ground to the Big Four accounting firms, or because you thought they’d create a de facto embargo that hurt family mines, then you were accused of supporting slavery and rape. (You didn’t really think hyperbole and divisiveness began last Election Day, did you?)

5. We’re still sending mixed messages to our suppliers. It’s particularly obvious on the issues of living wage and working hours versus competitive pricing and time-to-market.

6. We send mixed messages about our social values. We speak with concern about equity and mobility and the importance of education, but are we scrutinizing our own outsourcing, compensation and tax policies for how they contribute to systemic inequities?

There is more, but these are representative of the key message: that if we’re to make disruptive change, we have to question conventional wisdom and understand the ways in which our companies and stakeholders may be reinforcing the status quo.

But don’t be discouraged. Although wanting it to be steeper and faster, most interviewees were very positive about the trajectories of their companies, and of business in general. I found especially hopeful their answers to "Would your program continue on its path if both you and your CEO were to leave?" The answers ranged from "Perhaps a minor hiccup, then it would get back on track" to "Absolutely. These are public commitments" to "It already has survived numerous departures, and in any case, the world is demanding it of us" to "It might even pick up the pace."

OK, that last one was said with a touch of wry humor. But the point remains: The quest to embed sustainability into the business has made substantial progress.

For the sustainability professionals who feel a sense of inadequacy — and I know you’re out there — I hope you will remember that you’re up against deeply entrenched systems. And that by confronting these challenges, you, your teams and your allies are fundamentally changing the course of Corporate America. Thank you for your service.