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Why Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone is the Way to Make Change Happen

I recently had the pleasure of participating in the annual workshops of SustainAbility's Engaging Stakeholders network. The theme for the workshops was "value." That is, how companies can derive greater business value from their sustainability communications and engagement, and how they can deliver greater value to stakeholders and society via their efforts.

Across sessions on topics including social impact measurement, ratings, social media and member company "dilemmas," one dominant thread emerged: To create real business value from sustainability, and to have any chance at addressing the daunting challenges which face us, we (i.e. sustainability professionals) must go beyond our comfort zones and do more to engage mainstream audiences and actors in our efforts.

We Have the Foundation...

Sustainability practitioners have done remarkably well in a short time to build strong foundations for their work. Corporate sustainability reporting, virtually non-existent a decade plus ago, is now the norm for global companies (KPMG recently found that 95 percent of the world's largest 250 companies report on their sustainability efforts).

In 2011, most large companies consider the views of a variety of stakeholders in managing their businesses (not just shareholders). Indeed, there are established standards around engagement, and companies are increasingly comfortable opening up to constructive challenge (and many have standing external committees or panels to provide this challenge).

And a number of efforts such as the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment have helped to start the conversation with mainstream audiences (investors in the case of UN PRI).

We should celebrate the foundation we have established, but also acknowledge that we are still largely preaching to the converted. This was abundantly clear when we convened our Engaging Stakeholders member companies and the head of the health care analyst team at a top-tier investment bank in June to discuss sustainability reporting and how it could be made more relevant to her world.

Despite this bank being a thought leader on ESG, this analyst had never seen a sustainability report, nor did she think much of what sample reports contained was relevant to her evaluation of companies and their competitive positioning.

"Preaching to the converted" is also evident in the very limited readership of sustainability reports generally, and the fact most engagement is focused on what we consider the professional stakeholder crowd (e.g. SRIs, NGOs, other sustainability practitioners).

Again, kudos to companies for producing reports and for engaging these critical audiences, but we believe the value of such efforts has diminished with time. We posit that most companies have fallen into the habit of reporting and engaging because they believe this is what companies should do today ("we must report because rating X gives us credit for reporting"), rather than doing so to craft a compelling story that builds equity with key audiences or gain insights into new markets or products – that is, to truly create business value.

... Now Let's Build the Castle

In the workshops, we explored some promising efforts. For example, Disney is taking a multi-pronged approach to addressing health and wellness via its Magic of Healthy Living initiative, which includes making healthier foods standard offerings in resorts.

We also discussed the uptick in "pre-competitive" collaboration we are seeing, for example Ford Motor Company partnering with Toyota to develop new hybrid powertrains for light trucks and SUVs, and a number of footwear and apparel brands collaborating to eliminate toxic discharge from their supply chains by 2020.

We discussed how technology continues to change the nature of disclosure, accountability and engagement, and looked at examples including Ecotrust Canada and Sobeys (This Fish), IBM (Smarter Planet University Jam) and the explosion of mobile health applications with their potential to disrupt industries and engage new players.

These efforts are promising and should be applauded, but they also need to be replicated, scaled and mainstreamed.

Where We'll Invest Our Time in 2012

In 2012, SustainAbility will strive to spend more time outside of our comfort zones, engaging in conversations with disbelievers (to leverage the title of a 2000 report [PDF] from John Weiser and Simon Zadek). We've played in this space before, for example with our Pharma Futures project and our effort to bridge the divide between mainstream investors and companies. We're continuing this with feedback to the Global Reporting Initiative's G4 development process -- namely, that GRI deliberately engage investors. We are also considering collaborative research efforts into investor and consumer engagement.

In taking this approach, we know we will have difficult and frustrating conversations with individuals who "don't get it" (like the lead health care analyst above), and we will find ourselves rehashing arguments that have been used and abandoned many times over through the years. Yet we do this recognizing that companies will unleash enormous value from their sustainability efforts if they can figure out how to connect with a wider audience.

Opening door photo via Shutterstock.

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