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Something has been bugging me for a while now. It’s not a new issue but something that has been slapping me on the head daily for the last few months more than it has done in the past. Maybe it is the continued economic struggles the world is going through. Maybe it is the Occupy movement. Or maybe it is just me in desperate need of a vacation on my dream island of Kauai. Whatever the reason might be… The question I ask myself is whether we working in sustainability/CSR/Shared Value (or whatever you call it) are dealing with the fundamental challenges the world face today or are we just working on some of the symptoms and applying band-aid to a sickness that needs much more than what we have to offer?

I don’t question that we are doing the right thing for the right reason. We are trying to make this world a little bit more sustainable. We are trying to make companies be more responsible as good citizens of this world. We are trying to prove that good business can be done by doing good. That capitalism with a heart is possible. That money can be made by sharing value with society. That business has a social purpose that it should embrace. Yes, we are doing good work and we are making a difference. But is it enough?

The world is consuming at levels that are unsustainable. We cannot consume the way we have in the past and expect everything to be okay. But the economic system that we live and survive on is based on more consumption. Consumption of products. Consumption of credit. Consumption of energy. More and more of each and everything.

We’ve seen where this has got us so far. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. It’s been like a frog being boiled. It’s been a slow squeeze on the middle class and the working class over decades. When the system started running into problems we the people adapted and everyone started to work to pay the bills and buy those things we need – and those things we want. But income didn’t keep up. And slowly the world got into more debt to stay afloat. And then the bubble when kaboom.

The same is true of the environment. We consume so much more crap food, in the West especially, that farming had to change from providing us with food to providing us with GM foods, hormone injected meat, fields of corn for sugar and cereal and everything you can think of, and so much more crap. All because we wanted more and more of this crap food to feed our greed and insecurities. And we manufactured in ways and drove our cars without knowing that slowly but surely we are choking the world and messing with the climate.

And so it goes on. We know how we got here. We got here because we believed we needed things when we really just wanted it. And lines got blurred more and more between need and want. Between necessity and luxury. We consumed and we consumed and we consumed. It worked for a long time. It fed us and made us wealthy – or some of us. And we got addicted to it. Growth, growth, growth. The bigger the better – in what we have and how we looked. We consumed ourselves to a standstill.

But the “system” cannot live any other way. How do we get out of the economic slump? We’re told by consuming more. A key moment for me was when then President  Bush said right after 9/11 that people should go and shop and go on with their daily lives as if nothing happened. Well, something did happen. The same is going on right now. The world is suffering on a societal and environmental perspective. The world is a very different place from 3 or 4 years ago. But we’re told we need to consumer more to get us out this slump.

I always tell my kids and my clients that we can’t expect different outcomes by doing the same thing. The same is so true for us right now. We can’t go on the way we have and expect the outcome to be different. We cannot consume the way we have and expect a different outcome. We cannot do business the way we have and expect a different outcome. We as humans know this when we hit our heads against a wall – we stop doing it and go around the corner. We’re not stupid. Or are we?

So what does this have to do with sustainability? Well, we’re still telling people to consume. Yes, we are telling them “buy this product because it is so much more sustainable”. Energy? We’re not asking people to cut down on their use but rather to use renewable energy. Okay, sometimes we ask them to use less energy but not really to buy less energy using products. Do you really need so many televisions? Do you really need 2-4 cars? Do you really need a house that large? Do you really need spend so much money during Black Friday? No one is advertising asking people to please not buy so much of their products this coming festive season. Very nice of Patagonia to say they want people to buy less but we know they aren’t really saying that they need to grow a little bit less. Or not at all. They still want to grow but hoping that people will buy the slightly more expensive and sustainable product or buy the Patagonia product instead of buying from a competitor.

We in sustainability and CSR are making the world a better place. I don’t doubt that for a moment. If every company does what we in sustainability and CSR want them to do then we will be in a much, much better place. But are we dealing with the underlying weakness of the system or are we delaying the hurt to the next slump? Put it this way. Would the world be in a better economic place if every single product is made in the most responsible way possible? I don’t know - but I think we would’ve been heading to the same problem if we didn’t address the underlying addiction to consumption and growth.

That is really the 3 pillars of sustainability – product, profits and purchase.

Product – how the product is made. Make it as sustainable as possible. Make it by using renewable energy, sustainable sourcing, manufacturing without exploitation etc. Make it the best we can. And make the impact on society and the environment as light as possible.

Profits – do your business to make a profit. No business can live without it. It is at the heart of business. But don’t confuse profits with growth. We’ve become addicted to growth because of the shift in investors from long-term to micr0-term. Not even short-term anymore. That would require a day or a week or two. The majority of investors of today don’t give a damn about the company and what it makes – only about the return they can get in the next 5 minutes, or seconds. And they are holding businesses ransom. We saw this during this recession. Profitable companies laid off workers. How is that for commitment? They didn’t say “we’re struggling on the growth front but still profitable – so we’re going to knuckle down and work, work, work to get out if it but won’t let our people go as long as we are profitable.” No, they let people go because the micro-term investor demanded it. Puh-lease don’t talk to me again about your employees being your greatest asset. Your don’t sell the crown jewels with the first sign of a bit of a struggle.

Purchase – people need to buy your stuff for you to be profitable. But the reality is that we also need to get people to buy less stuff. This is at the heart of the challenge to business. How do you make stuff and sell stuff but make sure people buy less stuff. Guess what… I don’t know.

There is another “P’s” we have to address within the system as well to make the world truly sustainable. Parity…

Parity – we can’t live in a world where so few has so much and so many has so little. It is not sustainable. It. Is. Not. Sustainable. Get it? The gap between the highest earners and the lowest earners are just too wide. The gap between the 1% and the 99% is unacceptable. The gap between the pay of the executive and the lowest paid workers is not good for the company or society. No one is asking for 100% equality in pay. But the gap is just too damn wide. It is greed and nothing more. Any reason given is just snake oil. It is not just and not right. And more importantly, it is not good for business and it is not good for capitalism.

But it goes further than that. The West cannot consume the way they have and allow the rest of the world to slowly die. We live in a global world. The West is the 1% and Africa is the 99%. It is not sustainable. It is capitalism gone bad. It is the dark underbelly of greed. It must stop.

So until then we in sustainability are using band-aid to deal with a much more serious disease - unless we start seriously dealing with all 4 of these P’s – Product, Profits, Purchase and Parity. The challenge is we can’t do this on our own. We need to widen our circle because this means we need to forge new partnerships outside of business to get this right. But that discussion is for another day.

Now I need to get to Kauai to consume some sun.

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Sustainability should be much simpler than what we make it out to be. It’s not very complicated – take actions today that leaves the world in a better or no worse place for future generations. But the devil is always in the details. And this made me think a little of what are the different levels of sustainability. And how the concept of sustainability and the current trends influence business in the future. I’m sure this is way too simple so feel free to chip in and help define the levels of sustainability. These are rough thoughts that was hatched during my daily commute on public transport and therefore very rough…

Why make these distinctions? Because it helps us know how to work with and help each company. They are all very different and needs to be treated differently. Many moons ago I had a client who asked me to help them become “like Timberland”. My response was pretty straight forward – “You know you are an extractive company, right?”

More importantly, it helps us think of the future of sustainability. We know what a sustainable future should or could look like – what role does business play in this future?

1. I don’t do sustainability

There are many companies out there who just plain do not believe in sustainability. They believe in one thing and one thing only – increasing their ROI for the next few days. Even a quarter is a long-term vision for them. They will campaign against anything that asks them to take their impact into consideration – climate change, labor rights, equality in the workplace etc. They will comply to local laws because they have to and not always because they want to. That’s why they lobby and fight against so many of these laws. They will take subsidies without thinking of their own responsibility. They will cut corners where they can – and in most cases stick within the law. They will sell you snake oil and call it green. They’ll do the minimum and think that is the actions of a responsible company. They will use meaningless words and phrases that sound cute but mean nothing like “the business of business is business“. I won’t spend too much time on these companies. Arguing with them is a losing fight. They see what they want to see and nothing we can say or do will make them change their ways. I won’t invest in them and I won’t work with them. There are just too many other companies trying their best and who needs counsel, help and support. Let’s rather focus on those who see the sustainability of their company and the world as linked to their business bottom line. In any case, I don’t believe these companies will survive for long. History shows us that companies that think this way eventually just die a slow death. Eventually society will see them for who they are – in it for themselves and not really part of society.

2. I act responsibly

Of course there are a range of companies who just aren’t sustainable. The nature of their business and/or their current business model means that they can act responsibly but the company itself cannot be seen as sustainable. They must change how they source or manufacture over time to become sustainable. It doesn’t mean that they can’t be good corporate citizens. Many if them are good citizens who act with great responsibility. I see them as the CSR group rather than the sustainability group – a small but important distinction. Let me use an industry as an example. Most companies in the extractive industry just cannot be seen as practicing sustainability. They take stuff from the grounds and can’t replace it. They can’t leave that specific world in the same or better place. It’s a stretch for them to claim that. I worked with a very well respected luxury goods company and they refused to use the word sustainability. When I asked them why their response was “Because we mine diamonds and can’t put it back. And eventually we will run out of diamonds.” When will they run out of diamonds? Who knows! But the principle is right. But they do incredible work – one of my top 5 companies when it comes to CSR. Incredible work. They do everything right when it comes to sourcing their diamonds, adding value in developing countries where they source from, refuse to buy rubies from Burma, lobby against unsustainable mining practices – they tick all the boxes. But the nature of their business means they take full responsibility of their impact and are incredible corporate citizens – just not sustainable. This is in no way knocking them. Many of these companies do incredible work in difficult circumstances and delivers a product we desperately need today (and tomorrow) – we can’t live without them. I am proud to be associated with them and to work with them. So many of them are shining examples of what responsible businesses could and should be doing. Those in the group who practice sustainability can learn from these companies on what true responsibility in communities and supply chains mean and how to measure and reduce your impact in the world.

3. I am sustainable

Sustainability is slowly but surely becoming mainstream. More and more companies are embracing the discipline of sustainability to build a better business for the future. They have practices that highlight what can be done to make business work and help secure our joint future. They source in ways that do not deplete these resources. They take action on their energy use and tackle climate change in action and voice. They treat workers with respect and speak out against injustices. They will help their suppliers to become more sustainable themselves. They will take responsibility for their products and empower consumers to take responsiblity where they have a joint responsibility – such as driving recycling with consumers. These are the companies who are the leaders of today. They believe in values adding value. They know their future business success is tied to the sustainability of the world around them. The way they operate, source and manufacture, ensures they still have the ability to operate this way in future – the resources are replenished to ensure a better or same tomorrow. The world will be a poorer place without them. In so many ways.

4. I help make the world sustainable

This fourth category is the one that bugs me the most. It’s the most challenging and most complex. Maybe I should break it up into more levels of sustainable businesses, but for now I will keep the three distinctions of this group here.

The easy part is identifying those social innovators and entrepreneurs who focus on developing a business solution to a social problem. They are different from group 3 mentioned above because the nature of the products and services of group 3 is not aimed at a social problem but more about the “wants” of people. Most of the purchases of today are not because we need it but because we want it. We think we need a tablet but we don’t really need it, we just want it. A smartphone is a luxury and not a need. How many pairs of shoes do you need versus how many you want? Companies who are in group 3 still sells products in the “want” category but do so by taking responsibility for their actions and impact by making sustainability part of how they source, manufacture and take responsibility for their final product (waste etc). The social innovators focus on creating products and services society needs – new ways to get clean water to the poor, medicine people need to survive, nutritional products aimed specifically at groups in need, renewable energy solutions in challenging environments, energy-efficient cars (it’s more of a need than want if you only have one car!) – and much much more. They link the need of society to new product or service development and build a business around that. In some cases they might be a non-profit but the principle is still providing a tradeable solution to societal needs – micro-financing is a classic example.

Some of the companies in this category falls outside of this social innovation group though. They are still innovators but they actually focus on the want and not on the need. They develop new products and services that still deal with the current consumer behaviour of buying more stuff that is cool. They tap into the pop culture and fashion of the day and gives it a unique spin by giving it a social value over and above the hip new product. Think of TOMS. The product they sell isn’t unique and neither did they bring a product to life that deals with a specific societal need. They tapped into the mainstream consumer market by creating a cool new “I-want-that” product that has a huge societal benefit attached to it. The business model is very unique but the product itself is not. The concept itself is not that unique either. It is a logical evolution of cause marketing coming into maturity. From attaching a cause to a product to the cause becoming central to the product concept development itself.

The 3rd and last group in this category is the one I struggle with the most and my ideas are still only half-baked here so please feel free to rip it apart. But humor me for a moment.

All of these businesses in this group and the other categories still work within the system we know – sell more products and services to consumers. It operates within the current system. The challenges we face as a society today is challenging this system though. The question being asked is whether we can continue to expect these levels of consumption and be a sustainable world? I’m not talking about a narrow definition of sustainable consumption. Sustainable consumption debates have focused on selling more sustainable products and taking responsibility for your product post-consumer- whether it is how they are manufactured or used. The premise remains the same – sell more stuff. Sell stuff to increase ROI by creating new markets or pushing market share.

Is this system itself sustainable though? Can we really expect to build a more sustainable future by maintaining the same credit levels and expecting people to continue to buy more things? Let me give you an example… Are we any closer to sustainability if every single pair of shoes sold in the world now and in the future is made by TOMS? If we buy TOMS at the same rate of growth – does that make the world sustainable? TOMS might have a great business model but the world can’t handle buying at the same level we’ve had over the last 10-30 years – even if it is TOMS…

That is the essence of the challenge for companies – how to change the business model to remain profitable in a world that needs lower consumption levels and somehow keep investors happy. This would be the next level of business and sustainability. But this is a balancing act that is asking a lot…

The honest truth is that I have no clue how we can do this. Like I said, it’s just something that is bugging me at the moment. Somewhere the answer lies and I believe that good businesses, and society in general, will come up with an answer. We don’t have much of a choice as the runaway levels of consumption is not sustainable. And neither is the continuous pressure on the business bottom line via squeezed margins and market share. We’re close to a tipping point.

This goes way beyond the “Shared Value” concept. Shared Value argues we look at where business and society intersects and finding the joint value in that relationship to drive business and societal benefits. But what if the real value is to share less?

I don’t have the answer. But it’s worth exploring the options as doing nothing might not be an option for much longer.

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Everything seems to be turning green. And there is nothing wrong with that – companies creating new, innovative products and services that are good for them and good for the environment. But consumers haven’t completely bought into this yet. A number of green products aren’t flying off the shelves the way companies anticipated. Why is it that the green revolution has taken companies by storm, but not consumers? With the environment at the forefront of consumer concerns, it makes one wonder, why consumers aren’t dropping the bad stuff and buying the good stuff. We build it, but they just won’t come.Why? 

Some products are a big hit with consumers – the Prius and CFL light bulbs are taking off in a big way. So why aren’t they buying green shoes, food, computers, etc.? 

There are many reasons why people buy certain products and not others – price, functionality, “coolness,” brand loyalty, etc. One often overlooked factor is: how do the environmental aspects of the product help the consumer? 

Let’s first look at why the Prius and the CFL light bulb are so popular. They allow consumers to feel better about themselves when they use these products. A person starts their Prius and immediately feels “greener” than their neighbor with the gas-guzzling SUV. They feel better and more environmentally responsible with every mile they drive. It is the action of driving that makes them “green.” The same goes for a CFL light bulb. They feel better about themselves each and every time they turn on the lights. The simple action of switching on the light enables them to feel like an environmental “activist” – that they are making a difference.  

You said you wanted a green car...
You said you wanted a green car…

The environmental benefit doesn’t come from the company making the Prius or the CFL light bulb. The “goodness” comes from the consumer using the product instead of an alternative product. A Prius isn’t a car – it is an environmental tool for the consumer. The CFL light bulb doesn’t just provide light – it provides the consumer with an opportunity to make a difference through the simple action of flipping the switch. 

The success of these “green” products lies in enabling the consumer to take action. The act of making a difference through using these products makes them successful. So many green failures can be traced back to lacking this fundamental element – allowing consumers to feel “green” each time they use a product. When all the “goodness” is in the making of the product and not in the using of the product, no other action is expected from the consumer. The only action the consumer needs to take is buying the product. But the act of buying is not perceived as an act of environmental activism. This doesn’t allow the consumer to feel that they are taking environmental action. 

Buying a green product, that’s green qualities are all in the production phase, leaves the consumer with a very basic question: what about me? 

You want to sell a green product? Then let your consumer be part of the “greenness.” Give them something that they can do apart from just buying the product. Give them a way to take action. Let it be easy – like starting a Prius or flipping a light switch. Give consumers simple actions that make them feel like they are making a difference each and every time they use your product. Let them be part of the change.

But what about those products that can’t make consumers feel that they are part of the green actions – that don’t turn them into “green activists” purely through the use of the product? Here companies need to be a little more subtle in their approach…

David Connor made me think of the role between a company and its consumers. David is one of a handful of people I admire for their thinking and pushing Sustainability/CSR forward. A true leader in the field. It helps that he is a fellow Liverpool supporter as well… You must follow him on Twitter (@davidcoethica) and bookmark his blog for regular reading – David Coethica’s Blog. Great guy and great CSR/Sustainability strategist.

In a recent blog he explores the relationship between a company and the consumer. What role should the company play in promoting sustainable products to consumers? Should a company put sustainability at the front and center of their communications to consumers? Should companies educate consumers about their impact and sustainability?

Well, if you are selling a Prius or a CFL lightbulb it might help. But even then you have to be very, very careful. The Prius struggled initially to get a foothold in the UK market. Why? Because they tried to sell it as the environmental car. So a few environmentalist bought the car but not too many others. They changed tactics and sold the car as a cool car for the younger crowd with some fuel efficiency thrown in to seal the deal. Bang – they were up and running. See the difference? They didn’t try to sell a green car as the primary reason the second time around.

Once you move away from the Prius example it gets even more complicated.

David argues that companies should do more to provide consumers with more information and education. The problem is that most consumers are very specific about what they want, why they want it and when they want it. Now remember, neither David or I are the average consumer. We work in sustainability and tend to be more sensitive to these issues. The average consumer shows no or little interest. They’ll tell us they will buy a green product and they may pay a premium. The truth is more complicated than that. We just don’t see them flocking in huge numbers to buy green products. (More on this in a future blog – consumer behaviour and movement towards sustainable products are evolutionary and not revolutionary. They move slow but steady in that direction in most cases.)

But the average consumer want their coffee when they go to Starbucks, boots when they go to Timberland etc. They don’t want you to complicate their need and want by telling them about all the “other stuff” when their need and want is clear. That’s the quickest way to alienate the average consumer.

Let me show you a funnel I created to try to make the point:

When you talk to the group on the left you can be as detailed as you want. They know the stuff and they are interested in it. However, when talking to the group on the far right you need to know that the majority of people fall in this area and are not interested in the “added baggage” of sustainability. They just want their “stuff”.

Companies must be careful to balance their engagement with consumers to both the topic that is relevant and the place where it is relevant. This is at the heart of “shared value” (there, I said it!) – don’t preach and don’t oversell, rather empower subtly. Companies must remember to keep the “act” part of what they do separate from the “talking” part. Do what you have to do as a company to be sustainable and have it embedded in the business – but don’t confuse that with what you talk about when engaging consumers. They don’t care about all the detail – only “what can I do and keep it simple”. And… “Give me my stuff!”

The easiest and most effective way to empower consumers is to not actually tell them they are being more sustainable. Be so subtle that they don’t even know they are becoming more sustainable. You can tell them later and give them a nice surprise. Draw them down the funnel from “I just want my stuff” on the right to “what’s your sustainability strategy” on the left.

This way the company can focus on their sustainability as it benefits the company and society (and the environment) – the doing part – and help consumers become more sustainable without them knowing it. An example – Starbucks can tell the consumer about where they get their coffee and how they source it all they want but the average consumer just want their cup of Starbucks. So Starbucks have great sourcing practices but sell the consumer their coffee and sometimes tell them subtly that it’s a damn fine cup of coffee on more than just taste level. It confirms the purchasing decision already made instead of driving new sales. It builds customer loyalty instead of new customers. That’s how most consumers think and act.

Keeping with the Starbucks example – what consumer do care about is the place where they share an impact with Starbucks. In their case it is the cup. They don’t really care how the coffee was sourced or if the building is LEED certified or not. They care about what to do about the cup once they’ve had their coffee. So Starbucks helps them recycle and encourages them to use tumblers. They can try to educate the consumer about sustainability and how the consumer can be more sustainable but the reaction from the majority of consumers will be, “What are you on about, dude? Just give me my damn coffee!”

The lesson from this is for companies to focus on that area where they have a “shared value” with the consumer. Where they have a mutual responsibility or an impact they share. For the electronics industry this is about “what the heck do I do with my old stuff?” This is especially true in a world where electronics are becoming another commodity for consumers to replace and dispose with ease. The “shared value” (said it again!) is companies empowering the consumer to dispose of the product in an easy way at the point of purchase. Their key consumer focus should therefore be about making recycling as easy as possible.

Recycling might not be the sexiest sustainability topic but it is, in most cases, still the most relevant one from a consumer experience perspective. Boring for those on the left of the funnel but actionable and empowering for those on the right of the funnel. It’s one of few places where you share an impact and a responsibility with the consumer.

The next step is helping consumers make the right choice. There are so many gadgets out there today – how do you choose the right one? By going to a store and asking the person behind the counter what is the best choice for them. What product fit their specific need. This can’t be done online as there are just too many factors and too many different products. Trying it online will alienate the consumer quickly. Even those companies who have sustainability as part of their brand knows that you can’t do it online. The rule of online commerce is “keep the clicks to a minimum”. Comapnies such as Timberland, Starbucks, M&S etc keep the purchasing easy and uncomplicated. It’s a different ballgame when they are in your store nthough. By empowering your employees you can help the consumer become more sustainable by matching their need with the right product. How is this more sustainable? By helping them make the right choice you ensure that they won’t replace it as easilyor quickly because the product match their need. You don’t sell them a car if they really only wanted a t-shirt…

Note, in neither of these cases do we even need to mention the word sustainability or CSR. “Hey Mr Consumer, let me help you pick the right product to match your need.” It’s sustainability disguised as good customer service! Don’t “educate” your consumer. This feels like preaching to them and they smell through the bull pretty easy. Or they will get alienated by the overload of information when all they wanted was their “stuff”. Educating consumers about sustainability is overrated in my eyes. (So much is going on in educating the consumer that we’re in danger of creating white noise where no one hears anything anymore.) Focus on the relationship you have with them and focus on your mutual responsibility. Don’t use big word. Make it easy. Once they are in the habit of expecting these then you can tell them what you two just did jointly and pull them down the funnel into a new world of sustainable opportunities.

In conclusion – the most effective way to share sustainability with the average consumer is by making it easy for them and not always telling them (or preaching to them) that they are involved in any form of sustainability. It should just become part of their daily purchasing actions without them even knowing it. That’s the one side of the funnel – the consumer side. When talking to people on the other side – the influencers – then it is okay to show how these play out and how the company thinks. But influencers (me included) are not the average consumer and need a different approach.

This is not what David fear – “Am I the only person that is scared that far too many retailers are waiting for consumers to dictate the sustainability revolution?” It is being smart in how you pull them into sustainability. It’s talking their language, understanding their purchasing habit and making sustainability part of their decisions without knocking them over the head with it. It’s subtle but effective. It changes habits and expectations without them knowing it. It’s like teaching a baby to speak or walk. They can’t remember who did helped them and no one said “walk or talk” to them. We taught them these new skills without them knowing we were doing it. And they haven’t dropped these taught behaviours and actions – it becamse part of their lives. And they will teach others to do the same one day.

I don’t think David will necessarily disagree with me. But I think we need to be very careful when we talk to consumers about sustainability. The last thing you want is them to say you are greenwashing or alienate them because of the overload of information. Remember why they come to you in the first place – to get their “stuff”. Help them pick the right stuff to fit their needs and help them dispose of it responsibly. And they don’t even need to know you are doing it to be sustainable or help them be more sustainable. It changes the way they act without them even knowing it. They will become more sustainable without even knowing it. Now that is sustainability.

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Everything is green nowadays. It’s the talk of the town. Newspapers are full of the latest green apocalypse heading our way. Bloggers blog green left, right and center – with fonts and pictures to match. Activists are up in arms about green washing and washing our greens. Governments want to govern what green means. The celebs and stars shine their special green glow all over us. Business jockey to out-green each other. And consumers are turning green with envy when the Joneses outdo them with the latest hybrid, organic, recycled, wind powered and turtle free cup of joe.

It’s not a bad thing. Saving our planet before it burns is not a bad idea. Even if it won’t happen in the next year or 50 – depending on who you believe. Having a tree dedicated to you somewhere in the DRC ensures you a retirement spot one day. And some of the ideas even save us some money! Switching light bulbs save us money – even if we can save more by switching it off. Getting 60 MPG is not to be sneezed – especially with the high gas prices. Although most small European cars can do that on flat tires.

But not everyone cares about the changes in our climate or the validity of the latest eco-friendly product. It’s pretty much a worry of the more privileged parts of society – the rich and middle class societies. You don’t switch to CFL lightbulbs if you don’t have electricity. You don’t really care about organic food if you have to worry about where the next meal is coming from. Or worry about renewable energy if you don’t have a roof over your head. But you might become greener even if you don’t care. Governments will continue to green the things we buy. Activist will continue to put on their green campaigning hats. Business will continue to grow and make greener products. And bloggers will continue to out-green each other to be the next Big Green Voice of Authority. All of this will continue to make everything we use and buy greener than before – even if we don’t care or want it.

But green means almost nothing outside of the big markets – mostly in the West. There are bigger issues facing people in places like Burundi, Zimbabwe, Niger and Liberia. They continue to struggle to survive each day. The cheapest bidder always wins when you live off less than $1 a day. And you don’t know if there will be a tomorrow if you live in Malawi or Botswana – HIV, TB or malaria can strike at any time. And who cares about the rainforest if you could be killed by a landmine in Angola or a warlord in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Or care about sustainable farming when you have no food in Somalia.

The number one aim is to survive. If that means eating the last Rhino or chopping down the last tree for firewood – then so be it. Planning for day 2 comes when you manage to get past the survival stage. But this doesn’t mean you are going to start farming in a sustainable way. Or buy renewable energy for your manufacturing plants. Nope, you are now just planning for day 2 – securing tomorrow and competing with your neighbor. India, for example, continues to argue that they will start thinking of their impact on the climate once they are allowed to create as much trash per capita as the US – read: ‘you stuffed up your environment to create wealth, why can’t we?’ The alternative, of course, would be to pay the developing countries to play the game. We know where that debate will end up. They can’t solve trade and aid – imagine eco-aid for sustainability at a large enough global scale…

It is only when you don’t have to worry about might happen to you tomorrow – food, security, health, housing, job etc – that you can start worrying about tomorrow itself. Green debates will remain a rich and western debate and concern – unless we start dealing with these more immediate concerns that the majority of the world population still face day after day.

It doesn’t mean it is right. It’s just the way the world rolls. We can’t talk about sustainability without looking at dealing with poverty, diseases and the quest for survival so many in Africa and elsewhere struggles with each day. We must balance all three pillars of CSR and sustainability to make it work – economic, environment AND social. So often, and too easily, we forget about that third pillar. It’s three pillars to help us focus but it is one single strategy when we implement.

And this is where business plays such a crucial role. They can create and deliver the products to deal with the diseases and hunger, they can advocate and lobby for the political changes needed, and they can invest in countries who need the economic lift and hope for a better future. Governments will play the political game, activists will be crucial in highlighting the problems and help run programs on the ground. But they can’t create wealth, they can only fight poverty. Each one plays a key role. Governments provide the supporting framework, NGOs fight poverty and deliver during these emergencies and business (large and small – multinational and the woman selling fruits in the market) grows the economy to bring a sliver of hope. And in this hope lies the future of sustainability. But we are not there yet.

In the meantime, newspapers will chop down trees to print their green stories, bloggers will use computers and networks created and supported by nonrenewable energy and conflict minerals, activist will spread the word flying all over the world – and push up their emission count, governments will continue to make war over oil, celebs and stars will drive their stretch limos and live in their big houses, business will continue to confuse eco-friendlier with eco-friendly, and consumers… well, they’ll continue to buy what they want. Green or not.

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This post of mine was originally posted on the goodpurpose blog.

Once again, I realized that a conclusion that I drew one year ago on Corpprate Social Reality still holds true: there are a myriad of factors influencing consumers’ purchasing decisions, and purpose can be a point of differentiation for brands.

The goodpurpose study validates my claims. The most recent study found that when choosing between two brands of equal quality and price, consumers worldwide value social purpose as the deciding factor over design, innovation and brand loyalty. We’ve re-posted the old blog below, and hope you’ll take a look for insights into consumer behavior that should inform your business’ decisions today.

 

So, consumers don’t care?

I was reading an old blog giving 4 reasons why most consumers don’t care about corporate ethics. It was an interesting read, and I will respond in more detail on the other issues at a later stage. But one issue stood out again – consumers just aren’t willing to pay the price. This typical excuse simply argues that people won’t do something as opposed to delving deeper into why people buy products.

If price is the only issue then Nike would not sell one shoe nor would Starbucks [disclosure: Edelman client] sell one cup of coffee. Okay, so quality has something to do with it, so (some) consumers will consider price and quality when buying a product.

So why do people in the US still buy American cars? A few years back, American cars were generally more expensive and of lower quality. But people bought them, because they were American-made. Okay so price, quality AND origin can all be part of consumer decision making criteria.

So why do some people buy from Home Depot instead of Lowe’s? They are equal in price, quality and origin. Well, maybe because the types and quality of services they provide cater to specific consumers. So consumer decision-making is about price, quality, origin and service.

And so on, and so on, and so on. There are always many reasons why people buy certain products and not others. We must realize that consumers are not a single robot or unit, but that everyone has their own criteria which they use to when making a decision to buy something. For some, quality ranks highest (that is why people are still paying $200+ for DVD players). For others, environmental impact or health attributes are most important.

Brand value is complex. And going beyond price and quality to include environmental or social issues in the brand positioning helps companies further differentiate their products from competitors. By going forward with corporate social responsibility messages, those issues become part of a range of brand elements.

Also, ethically-sourced products don’t necessarily have to cost more–although this is a common misconception. Some products might be more expensive, but corporate social responsibility (CSR) can also reduce costs and create opportunities. CSR is about doing business better – all around. If you are working with your suppliers to make them more efficient, you gain. If paying staff a decent wage can make them more efficient, you gain. If looking after the environment ensures you still have a product to sell tomorrow, you gain. As each consumer is different, so is each company. We need to acknowledge this and build the ‘corporate social responsibility solution’ around what makes business sense for each individual company and product or brand.

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I have been trying really hard. Really, really hard. You know. To be a treehugger. I think the whole concept of being a treehugger is really cool. You get to have the beard, the nice lean and muscled body, tanned and tough as nails. With my sunglasses and Bermuda shorts. Sandals and a knowing look in my eyes. Man. I am so cool. Me, the treehugger. But first, let me find a treehugging job…

The rebel of the forest. Defending the last natural old forests of our precious earth. These beautiful beasts whose breath gives us our precious clean air. The green jungles that hides the therapy for the soul and body. It’s there and we must protect it. And that’s what I do. I live in the forest. Patrolling every inch to make sure these wise old trees stay safe. Safe from the loggers. I am the phantom. I live in the trees at night and run like a tiger during the day. Stopping and smelling the air to see who is here. Who will feel the wrath of the rebel. But… Eww! What is that? What is that smell? It smells like something rotten – must be the dead carcasses. And those creepy crawlies! Worms and bugs all over the place. And the bloody ants crawl up my pants the whole time. And the food stink – fruits day in and day out. I need a BigMac now! And just water and water and water. If it isn’t drinking this foul stuff then it is raining and raining and raining. I now get why they call it the rainforest. It’s always bloody-well raining. Gotta get outta here. I need some fresh air, a warm bath, a beer and a braai (barbecue).

The activist of the seas. I can see myself. Standing at the bow of the boat. Scanning the horizon for those whale-hunters. Now I am the hunter. Like a pirate of old. Ready. Just ready to take them down. They don’t know my rage. My fury. I am the king of the high seas. I have seen things on these seas of mine. Corpses of people. And corpses of animals. Those dead whales we try and save. But not anymore. Not on my watch. I will… Pthu! Bloody seawater sprays everywhere. Standing on the bow wasn’t such a good idea after all. The water sprays everywhere. Salty water in my mouth. My body feels sticky all the time. And all we get to eat is bloody fish and more fish. And crap desalinated water. The boat stinks man. Like dead fish and men who haven’t had a proper wash in months. My hair is a permanent mess. And my hands. My poor hands. Cut to pieces by working the lines and ship each day. Oh, man. It doesn’t help that I get seasick from watching fish-tanks either. Gotta get of this ship. Now! I need some clean linen, a warm bath, a beer and a braai.

Okay. So I can’t be an active treehugger. That’s fine. I’ll just be a greenie. I’ll just live green then…

It’s a good start. I use public transport. Okay, I don’t use it because of any green reasons. I am just too bloody lazy to drive to work myself. I have too short a temper to sit in the traffic all day. And I am too stingy to pay for parking and tolls. But still. It is a good start. Oh, wait. I also have a refillable mug for my daily Starbucks fix. I am saving a few rainforests that way. No cup for me. No sirree, Bob! Not for me. Except when I forget my cup at home. Or when I am too lazy to clean my cup for a refil. Still. It’s the idea that counts though. Doesn’t it?

My problem is that I want cool stuff. The jobs look cool. But it isn’t really. It’s only cool if people can see you do it. And there is no camera following me. Treehugging just isn’t cool enough for me. Me fighting global warming? No problem. Just make it a bit cooler dude. Global warming just isn’t that cool.

I mean really. The iPad is cool. A red Ferrari is cool. The Kinect is cool. So many companies make cool stuff. Not green stuff. But that’s cool. As long as it is cool dude. That’s the problem with treehugging. The stuff that make us want to hug trees just aren’t cool man. And at my age I need to have cool stuff. Because I am not cool enough by just my little older almost middle-aged self.

So gadgets don’t work for me trying to be cool and a greenie. Let’s try something else. Something that says cool and green in a big way.

Let’s buy a Prius! Okay, let’s not. The Prius is just not cool. It’s a lunchbox on wheels. An ugly lunchbox. Come on. The Dodge Challenger. Now that is cool. The Toyota FJ Cruiser. Now that is cool. I can see myself behind the wheel of a brand new red Challenger. Sunglasses and all. Revving the motor while eyeing the guy at the traffic lights. Ready to smell my tires dude? Bye-bye. Oh, and the surfboard on the roof of the FJ Cruiser as I sit on the bumper looking at the waves through my cool Ray-Ban glasses. Now that’s cool. The Prius? Nah. Not so cool. I’ll look like the man I am – on the older side of the surfer group. All I can fit into the Prius is my neat little suitcase and a clean shirt for work.

The problem is that most stuff that makes treehugging easier just isn’t cool. Oh, there is a few cool stuff out there. Wind-farms. That’s cool. Neat Apple-like designs. That’s way cool. One small problem though. I can’t carry it around with me to show it off. And you need to show it off if you want to be cool. Oh, and it will take up the whole bloody backyard. Kids won’t like that I think.

Global warming is even more difficult. I can’t point to it. I can’t go, “See, there it is. There are those damn CO2′s”. Just too little these things. These stupid little molecules. Wind-farm to big and CO2 too little. That just ain’t cool. That’s so way not cool.

But those kids of mine. I sometimes wonder. Just wonder how cool it will be when they grow up. Will it be too warm when they are my age? Might be a bit too warm for them. A little bit too warm to live? And that is so way not cool…

Maybe it is time for a change. Climate change. Now that is way cool!

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I’ve always been sceptical about CSR rankings and ratings. Partly because there are just so many of them. It sometimes feels as if we have a ranking and rating system for every company. Just find the one that fits your needs and away you go! But this also underlines a deeper problem with rankings and ratings - is it even possible to have a ranking or rating system capture all the differences and diversity amongst businesses?

Citizen IBM had a good piece on how CSR Rankings Can Be Improved. They capture some of the key problems I have – from the needs to acknowledge the differences in industries to the need for continuous improvements to full transparency in the criteria used. But I don’t think they went deep enough – and I would like the scratch the surface a little bit more.

Firstly, as Citizen IBM mentions, the differences between industries should be acknowledged. But it goes deeper than purely the differences between those who manufacture and those who offer services. And it’s these differences that makes it even more difficult to take rating systems seriously. Let’s remove the obvious difference for a moment – let’s exclude for the sake of argument services companies and only focus on companies who manufacture.

Even within manufacturing the differences are just too steep to make a single standard rating workable. Most rating systems looks at the impact of the manufacturing process – environmental impact, workplace practices, financial performance,  governance etc. Most companies within manufacturing can be judged according to these, right? Well, just hang on for a minute there…

What most of these rating systems focus on, measure and rate are the impact of the process and not the impact of the actual product delivered by the manufacturing process. Let me give you an example, it is possible for a tobacco company to have excellent CSR practices in their manufacturing process and therefore rank better than say a pharmaceutical company. But the actual product delivered by the pharmaceutical company is vastly different than those from a tobacco company – the one contributes to the health of society and the other do the opposite.

Now it will be easy to exclude tobacco companies – and many do. However, the basic principle remains. The extremes are easy to differentiate – and we can exclude tobacco and arms manufacturers. But what about comparing the products of an oil company to a pharmaceutical company? How do we judge the end product and the impact of that end product? Especially when we start bringing in the idea of sustainability – leaving the future world in a better or no worse place. How do you rate a product that positions us better for the future against a company who serves an immediate need but at a high environmental and sustainability cost? How do you rate a software company who connects sustainable solutions to a company whose software is used for warfare? The differences in what the products deliver becomes complicated and makes comparisons complicated and almost impossible.

Even within a single industry it is complicated and problematic – how do you differentiate between an energy company that produces only oil to one that only produces solar or another “green” energy? And what about a traditional oil company spending more and more on alternative energy? How do you judge the future impact and value of the product or service?

The approach to ratings also undermines a key development in CSR over the last few years – finding the opportunity of mutual responsibility or shared value between the company and its stakeholders (or society at large). Companies are increasingly seeing CSR as a way to create new opportunities that will be beneficial to both the business bottom line and the needs of society. But the approach of rating systems doesn’t allow for this to be reflected because they focus on the impact of operations and not the business model and approach to CSR. You can (and will) therefore have companies who practice CSR the old way (ticking boxes, compliance etc) have a higher rating than companies who seek new ways to create product and service solutions that will benefit both society and the business itself. Too many ratings take a “tick the box” approach instead of looking at innovation, opportunity, mutual responsibility, societal benefit etc.

And it goes even deeper than that…

The drive towards a common standard has another unwanted impact – individual criteria might mean a company have excellent rankings on some but fail on others. Especially those areas where their major impacts are. Let’s say a company rates highly on governance, philanthropy, financial performance and the environment but their major impact is actually on human rights. And let’s say this company then operates in countries where child labor or forced labor are fine. The fact that they have great rating in all but one will most likely give them a good rating overall. But they fail in the area that matters most to their specific company as it intersects with society. Again, the standardization of ratings therefore fail to acknowledge the area of major responsibility and impact of the company.

That’s my biggest problem with ratings and rankings. They focus too much on the process and too little on the impact and value of the actual products and/or service delivered and those areas of major impact and responsibility. A single standard rating and ranking to compare all companies cannot capture these differences adequately. Rankings and ratings go for the lowest common denominator and fail to truly rate those who benefit society today and tomorrow and fail to acknowledge the differences in impact between different industries – or even different companies within an industry.

Frankly, I don’t rate ratings and rankings that much…

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Is this where your savings are?

I have to say that it is one of my least favorite corporate practices – mountaintop removal or MTR. I just don’t see any sustainable benefit from it. And it’s pretty ugly too. So no surprise that people continue to target the industry for some activist scrutiny. 

Their latest target is JPMorgan Chase. Young activists are targeting JPMorgan Chase for underwriting “environmental Armageddon”. Harsh words but that’s in the nature of activism. Although I am interested in the MTR issue this specific campaign raises another long standing interest of mine – defining CSR and Sustainability for the banking and financial sector.

The recent economic meltdown raised serious questions on the role of banks and financial institutions and how they serve society. I’m not going to go there as it is well documented and an ongoing discussion. But I would like to propose we think of banks in a similar way that we look at other companies – via their value chain.

We ask of companies to be responsible by looking at the impact of their business operations as well as throughout their supply chain – upstream and downstream. It’s not good enough for a clothing company to only look at their own operations, they now have to have guidelines and systems in place to ensure their suppliers don’t commit human rights violations. Today we go even further by asking companies to also look at the environmental impact of their suppliers and to favor those who have a better environmental impact.

Of course we also ask companies to make sure that they take some level of responsibility for their products once they leave their stores. We expect computer manufacturers to offer some level of recycling and we want bottled beverage companies to take responsibility for the bottles they sold us. Heck, some cities and states help us (and the companies) to recycle these goods.

In short, we ask companies to make sure their products are manufactured in a responsible way and that they take responsibility even when they no longer ‘own’ the product.

Banking works the same way. We don’t want banks to make money through theft or money laundering and we don’t want them to fund terrorism or offer services to dictators or organized crime. That’s the easy part…

Why do we not expect them to take responsibility for the environmental impact of their services? Banks make investments that could threaten our future through global warming possible. Should they not be held responsible? Should we not measure the environmental impact of their money? Or rather, the environmental impact of their “investments”?

For me it goes beyond activism as we can then start measuring the impact of banks and financial services. We can make judgements on the values of these companies based on the impact they have – directly or indirectly. And the nature of CSR and Sustainability is to adapt to make it work for each industry. Maybe this is the way we can start figuring out the social and environmental impact of companies offering services – look at the impact they result in.

Maybe then we’ll stop funding everything in the name of profit. Or at least know what a responsible and sustainable bank looks like.

Do you know where your investment is going?

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