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The Inside View

Don’t let the negative 20% stop your sustainability story

There's a relatively small number of naysayers about your sustainability program. Ignore them.

"Why don’t companies talk more about the good things they do for society?"

This was the first question I received last week from a Harvard sustainability executive education class, but it applies to all of us in the corporate community. Time and time again I have witnessed that when a company opens its back room to its sustainability progress, both the good and the bad, most people are impressed — or at least moved to a more positive opinion.

Two days later I read a refreshing story in The New York Times, "Nestlé Says It Can Be Virtuous and Profitable. Is That Even Possible?" about the food giant’s sustainability journey.

Here are three things I believe Nestlé did right that I wish others would consider:

1. Nestlé thought of the mainstream consumer

This consumer is not extreme and wants companies to do the best it can to do good for society while making money. Nestlé did not stay mute as so many other companies choose to do. It was not afraid of the 20 percent — my estimate of those who are unconstructively critical.

The consumer wants companies to demonstrate both care and effort — not necessarily perfection. Nestlé’s CEO does this well, saying the company has cut sugars in its products by more than a third since 2000 and will cut them by an additional 5 percent by next year. But he also gives a realistic nod to indulgent foods. He states, "We would be defining food and beverage way too narrowly if you say only what makes you live longer and healthier is good. That’s not the reality in which we all live."

2. Nestlé had thick skin

As expected of a good journalist, there is criticism of the company in the New York Times story. Again, about 20 percent of the article gives voices to the critics. For example, Greenpeace is quoted as stating that Nestlé’s companywide campaign to reduce plastic waste isn’t enough: "If they want to remain viable in he future, they need to embrace the direction of young people want to go, which is away from throwaway culture."

Corporate executives think it’s a failure if the story is not 100 percent glowing.
From my experience, corporate executives get stuck on the 20 percent negative and think it’s a failure if the story is not 100 percent glowing. Thank you, Nestlé, for being open and willing to share, knowing you will take a few counterpunches.

Isn’t it odd that arguably the biggest corporate movement of the past 15 years is mostly invisible to the public? Back in 2004, corporate sustainability was virtually unheard of. Then in 2004 the first chief sustainability officer was named (PDF) (at Dupont), and the evolution since has been amazing. Most Fortune 500 companies have officers overseeing sustainability/CSR/responsibility, with strategies, goals and accountability — and with a seat within the C-suite.

Company executives owe it to society to be forthright about their sustainability progress. The people that work for you want you to stick up for them. You should be proud of your sustainability plan and willing to be open about it in public discussions. One of the biggest benefits to all of us working in corporate sustainability will be the day when the mainstream consumer understands and supports corporate sustainability actions.

Coincidentally, another big-time CEO went on the most notorious venue, "60 Minutes," to engage, in part, on a corporate responsibility discussion. Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, talked about banking, income disparity and its responsibility for the crash of more than a decade ago. He also opened the door to its work with Detroit, to add its expertise and some money to turn it around.

I was so impressed. Kudos to him and his team. In older times, the lawyers and communicators would have advised him, "Stay away. You will get drilled and embarrassed!"

Both Dimon and Nestlé did one more thing that is so important:

3. Nestlé spent enough time

The NY Times journalist refers in his article to Nestlé CEO Ulf Mark Schneider, "During an interview and lab tour that lasted several hours…"

In the 60 Minutes piece, it is obvious that Dimon invested many hours on that interview.

What a signal that sends. Usually, these stories are squeezed in with the CEO, and they are in a rush. Spending quality time communicates the sincerity of the story. It’s not just a PR event. Rather, it is an important aspect of the company.

I hope Nestlé and Chase represent a sign that the trend is changing. More companies need to think of the mainstream consumer who is realistic, wants honesty and transparency and is willing to give companies a break even if it’s not squeaky-clean to all the societal critics.

Damn the 20 percent. Full speed ahead.

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