A few thoughts on what's driving sustainability/CR and the role of communicators

Here's a short ten minute speech below which I made last night to a group of around 40 senior corporate communicators.

Some readers may find parts of it of some vague interest.

"Sustainability and communications, now and soon

It was apparently Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and philosopher who died in 1662, who first coined the phrase: "I didn't have time to write you a short letter, so I've written you a long one".

A version of this line was famously later adopted by Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln and George Bernhard Shaw.

As someone who runs a business magazine and online training business, you may be relieved to hear that phrase is printed out and stuck on my office wall.

With that in mind, I aim tonight to keep my remarks short and very much to the point. I imagine that will come as a relief to you all.

I’m going to talk this evening about what business sustainability looks like today, what’s driving it, and what the future and success factors look like for good communicators.

Let’s start with today’s picture.

I've been tracking business and sustainability/CR trends for about 12 years.

I spend a lot of time talking to big companies, NGOs, scientists, Governments about changes in the world and how they affect business.

So what might be some of the trends?

Here are four to begin with:

1) CR becoming slowly more strategic for some large companies.

2) A gap is emerging between leadership innovators and compliance driven others.

3) Innovation is engagement for the leaders: with internal and external stakeholders, new processes, new products, new business models and other companies.

4) The drivers for engagement are increasing, but companies outside of the leadership group are struggling to make sense of them.

Among other trends out there, examples of collaborative B2B innovation are the most interesting.

(By the way, don’t be fooled by the canard of “consumer opportunity”. The important stuff that sticks is all B2B at the moment, and will be for a while)

Some interesting B2B trends:

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition is setting new standards for the design, manufacture, retail and recycling of clothes.

The Bangladesh Safety Accord is breaking new ground on health and safety standards for the same industry.

The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative has helped create a new term: "Collaborative Governance".

It has created a whole new model of mechanism for tackling the resource curse and driving transparency.

And the Consumer Goods Forum has set a no-deforestation footprint target for hundreds of members by 2020.

This is an incredibly significant shift.

Meanwhile companies such as Mars and Unilever are willing to partner with anyone they can to improve the lives of smallholder farmers and agricultural yields.

Why are these changes happening?

What’s driving sustainability interest/integration within large companies?

Here are eight reasons, there are others:

1) Globalisation and its discontents

2) Transparency on impacts (amplified by social media)

3) Knowledge around resource constraints / Planetary boundaries

4) Aggressive NGOs combined with the failure of multi-lateral processes (Climate change)

5) Limitations of bilateral partnerships (fair trade, Rainforest Alliance)

6) Vulnerable and reactive Governments seeking quick popular wins

7) Concerns about systems integrity (pigs in rivers, horsemeat, planetary boundaries)

8) The trust deficit: Consumers WANT to trust brands, but need re-assurance, clear communications and honest and authentic dialogue.

And they won’t pay extra for it. Not in numbers anyway.

So what's the future for large companies in response to these drivers?

1.   Sustainability strategy targets and integration

2.   Open and on-going stakeholder engagement

3.   Constant horizon scanning for new issues (e.g. tax)

4.   Partnership development for better risk management (Unilever/Oxfam)

5.   Innovation based on internal engagement (Nike, Accenture)

So what does all this mean for communications professionals? How can you succeed in light of this rapidly evolving agenda?

I think it means several things:

To avoid a reputation debacle communicators need to integrate CR properly into their business.

For communications agencies this is a much better idea than having an add on advisory unit that has a new person running it every few years before it gets quietly shut down having often been ignored.

That integration of CR/Sustainability needs managing and measuring.

Just as it is being done within large multinational companies.

It needs to be done both strategically (corporate purpose and strategy) and tactically (embedding, managing and monitoring)

Online training can is one way to tactically embed sustainability.

My online CR training business is currently training around 100 managers world-wide.

It’s called “Getting to Grips with Corporate Responsibility”. We also run courses on sustainability communications. I’ll leave the sales pitch there.

Finally, I’ll finish with a few thoughts on the characteristics of good communications people working on CR and sustainability:

·      They are aware, trained, and engaged in the issues and the key players, up and down the agency, not just at the top or in a boutique advisory unit.

·      They lead colleagues and clients when needed, rather than PR-ing anything that comes across their desk.

·      They are not afraid to walk away from customers or clients if needed.

·      They understand genuine stakeholder engagement and are able to build relationships with key players.

(This is rather than just spamming them with press releases and writing sentences such as “I just wanted to circle back around and reach out to you”. My response to that particular line was “that sounds exhausting, why not just give me a ring?”)

·      Lastly, good communications executives see sustainability and corporate responsibility for what it truly is: A game changing business opportunity for us all, to do good, and to do well.

In conclusion: Sustainability for business is both a huge risk and a major opportunity. More companies will get it wrong than right, but for those who truly integrate it, the prize is better risk management, opportunity creation and the considerable rewards that will accompany getting it right.   

Thanks for listening."
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