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Finding your place in the sustainable-business landscape

Editor’s note: This is an edited extract from the book “How to Make Your Company a Recognized Sustainability Champion by Brendan May (Dō Sustainability, November 2012).The sustainability publisher Dō is offering GreenBiz readers a 5 percent discount off any DōShort with the code GBiz5.

It is staggering how little companies, new to the sustainable-business agenda, understand the landscape in which they must operate (and of course I am not talking about the growing ranks of sustainability leaders who have highly sophisticated channels of communication with all stakeholders). At best, they might be aware of the pesky nongovernmental-organization movement. But the lens through which they believe their company is viewed is essentially a cozy and containable trio in which investors, media and regulators rule supreme and should be the primary focus of attention. They could not be more wrong.

The theater of sustainable business is crowded, with a few leading actors and a vast cast of extras, some of whom matter to the overall plot much more than others.

Collectively, these categories form the fabric of the canvas on which corporations must paint their version of environmentalism and ethics. They represent thousands of individuals, if not hundreds of thousands. Some matter more than others, and this varies considerably from one country to the next. It is true that the main hubs of opinion forming thought still lie in the U.K., Brussels and North America, and this is why leading companies focus much of their efforts in promoting their credentials in these territories. New York, D.C., London and Brussels are major hubs for many key NGOs, not least because they are also important media centers. But France, Germany, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries also enjoy a vibrant and active campaigning scene, even if it is more localized and concentrated than in the more international hotspots. Increasingly, emerging giants such as India are developing their own frameworks for responsible business. There are corporate-social-responsibility or green-business associations across Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe. They will only grow as global challenges intensify. Moreover, companies that embrace sustainability must do so in every nook and cranny of the world in which they operate. For one acid river in a remote part of Africa can be all over Twitter and on the front pages of traditional media within 24 hours.

The key point to remember is that the sustainable business community (and it really is a community) is constantly talking to itself, forming judgments about your business or sector. Retailers hate nothing more than a surprise attack from a campaigning NGO alleging their supply chains are responsible for dead orangutans, the slaughter of turtles or the destruction of the Amazon. The retail sector is therefore in constant dialogue with campaigning groups. Media depend on campaigners to give them good stories. Campaigners depend on good policy thinking to make their case, from think tanks and academic institutions. Increasingly, the scientific community is finding its proper voice in these debates. Twitter is awash with CSR and green advocates, providing the perfect channel for widespread dissemination of good or bad news. Regulators, as ever caught in the headlights, try to keep up and frame policy around what others already have achieved as they sat and watched. Sometimes they become pivotal, but far too rarely. All these audiences are influencing each other and building up a collective view about priority issues, who is leading, who is following the pack and who is lagging far behind.

Image of businessman in white shirt walking up ladder by Denys Prykhodov via Shutterstock.

You may think that your sector or company or brand is immune from this chatter. But someone, somewhere, is watching you. They may be developing a new ranking of ethics or sustainability for your sector. You may find yourself near the top. If you’ve never engaged on these issues, more likely you’re at the bottom. If your customer base is other businesses rather than direct consumers, then be aware that those customers are likely to be much closer to emerging trends and debates than you are. The less you engage with this vast landscape, the harder it will be to persuade people your business is a sustainability champion. The more you engage, the better decisions your company will make, and the more independent voices will praise those decisions.

How to be highly strategic

Given the scale of the audience, the interrelationships between the players and the vastly divergent agendas, motivations and types of stakeholder, it is impossible to please, or even reach, all of them. The key is to be highly strategic about tiering, prioritizing and engaging in the sustainability landscape.

There are often false starts. Among the most common is the temptation to respond to every ranking questionnaire, with little benefit in the medium to long term. Some of the world’s worst and most polluting companies have often topped sustainability rankings. Enough said.

Talking with every NGO in a country may give a good impression, but if there is no follow-through there is little to be gained, for a company or an NGO. Except in the case of NGOs who refuse corporate donations, once dialogue starts you can find yourself on the end of endless proposals for funding, cause-related marketing initiatives and “partnership opportunities” that offer little by way of substance and are really fundraising masquerading as boosting your CSR credentials. In general, these are not a good use of sparse resources.

It is also important to identify where real gaps for leadership opportunities exist. This avoids the “me too” problem, in which your company is seen as playing catch-up with rivals who tackled a particular issue before you did. That is absolutely not to say you shouldn’t tackle these issues (these challenges can only be solved if whole sectors adopt better standards), but it may be that you choose not to amplify your progress on it too much when there are obvious other agendas where you can be the leader and “own” the topic. That ownership will be derived from where your company’s biggest problem areas lie, and therefore the biggest opportunities to drive positive, lasting change.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly of all, if you spend more than half of your time in the office looking in, your journey will end in disappointment. It is now clearly established that companies that actively pursue dialogue, attend the right events, meet the right people and bring the best learning from experts back into their organisation are the businesses everybody talks about as sustainability champions. It is critical that you, your CEO, your communications director, your board and your operational executives live and breathe sustainability and talk about it wherever they are and whenever they have an audience of any kind. This requires resource investment, but it pays off. As Duke Energy’s then-chairman Jim Rogers said in a 2007 article in The Economist, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

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