CSR and Sustainability

As a manager, when your company doesn’t really care, what can you do? (updated)

With the news that Kara Hurst, head of the Sustainability Consortium is to join Amazon as a senior sustainability executive an important question arises.

“If you work in sustainability/CSR in a company that doesn’t really care about the agenda, what can you do about it?”

There are two ways to answer this question.

One is the standard way whereby you make the usual case that sustainability/CSR enhances:

– Reputation in general
– Employee attraction, motivation, innovation, retention and productivity
– Investor attraction (albeit limited)
– Licence to operate when things go wrong
– B2B partner and supplier relationships
– Local and national government relations
– Your ability to meet current and future environmental requirements
– NGO conversations and partnerships
– Community satisfaction
– Executive career paths
– Your ability to innovate and see short/medium/long term risks
Etc etc

The second is much harder.

Amazon should know all of the above. But founder Jeff Bezos doesn’t seem to take these points seriously. Presumably other senior managers follow his lead.

So what can you do if you join a company that just doesn’t want to do much?

Perhaps Amazon now wants to do more. It’s possible. Apple proved that a recalcitrant firm can listen to external voices and make a key hire that changes things.

It’s equally possible they have hired Kara Hurst just to look good. 

(Let us hope she will lead the changes that former US EPA boss Lisa Jackson is credited with at Apple. Presumably you don’t make senior hires like his unless you are serious. Time will tell)

Amazon aside, if your bosses just want you to be window-dressing, what can you do except resign?

I don’t know. I have a few thoughts, but I have a feeling some readers do too.

Look forward to your ideas. 

UPDATE: After first publishing this post on Friday 22nd as an experimental approach to crowd sourcing some ideas/solutions, as usual I had a few comments from readers which may form some kind of answer to the above question.

The general mood from commentators was, if you can’t be taken seriously as a change manager or catalyst, then go work somewhere you can make a difference. 

Others pointed out that defining “not caring” is quite tough, and there are nuances to consider. 

Here’s a few points to consider when dealing with a company which today, only wants to do the minimum:

1) The compliance agenda counts 
For example, even in a company such as Amazon, which has dealt with the sustainability agenda by largely ignoring it, they have to comply with environmental regulations. So how can you creatively use the creeping regulatory agenda on green issues, combined with increased transparency demands, to build interest in getting ahead of that regulation, and make a business case out of this. 

2) Re-frame sustainability/CSR as business efficiency. Take out all the jargon, all of it. Focus entirely on teams of empowered employees driving money saving programmes. Pretty soon the greener / sustainability agenda will provides some useful stats (think basics like fuel, lights, transport, logistics etc)

3) Talk about offsetting political risk (this is the license to operate model but on a macro level) in emerging markets. Many countries are becoming much more aggressive with foreign companies, so dig up some examples of where shareholder value has been affected and link these with better operating practices. 

4) Push harder on the innovation agenda. A bit like point two, removing all jargon and making the links based on evidence is the way to try persuading your board to engage in sustainability/CSR.

If I receive any further comments from readers I will update this post further. Meantime here’s a link to a relevant article I wrote last year on this area.

It’s called: 

This slide deck from 2013 that I put together may also be useful:

http://www.slideshare.net/Tobiaswebb/csr-trends-strategy-ethics-and-the-business-case

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4 Comments

  1. Sophy

    It is very contradictive to continue working as a Sustainability Manager in a company that does not care about the environment. If you have ethics and you are really concerned about the environmental crisis, then the best for you and the society, would be to quit from this company and try to find anoher one which really wants to be responsible and contribute to the recuperation of the environment.

  2. Sophy

    It is very contradictive to continue working as a Sustainability Manager in a company that does not care about the environment. If you have ethics and you are really concerned about the environmental crisis, then the best for you and the society, would be to quit from this company and try to find anoher one which really wants to be responsible and contribute to the recuperation of the environment.

  3. Here’s a radical thought: they could swap the usual long list of business case validations for a clear definition of their specific role. In other words, a role that no other team in the business performs.

    What if the job of the sustainability team was to optimise the delivery of social (including environmental) value through the business? Of course, few sustainability teams define their role in this way: it seems far too simple a formulation for the level of importance we attach to the concept.

    But virtually every team in the business – from strategy to human resources, to risk and innovation – contributes in its own way to the jobs listed on the so-called business case for sustainability. And virtually every team in the business (perhaps excluding finance) suspects that the executive underestimates its level of importance. But they get on with their job anyway.

    Sustainability teams are commonly afficted with a free-floating anxiety. This is characterised by a persistent need to validate our existence to people who don’t “get it”, particularly the executives of the company that employs us. (Most people who read the Smarter Business blog know what “get it” means; for the uninitiated, the term refers to a breakthrough moment that reveals in no uncertain terms the interconnectedness of business and its social context and, more specifically, the need for the sustainability team to be taken very seriously.)

    When our bosses don’t get it, we can resign; or we can try harder. In trying harder, I’d advocate the less is more approach. Optimising social value delivery takes place in a particular context; it depends on a choice that can only be made by the executive team. Our job is simply to make that choice conscious. It is to reveal the system to itself.

    By simplifying the job, we contain the anxiety and ironically open the door to levels of transformation we could never have come up with ourselves.

  4. corin millais

    Hi tobias,

    Great question. I think CSR managers have a 2 year window in a large corporate to answer your question – enough time to get round the right folks, do a few business cycles, and test every lever possible for change opportunities. If it all come up next to zero, then you may be right about leaving. But – who want to be right and unemployed ? You could always wait for a switched on Executive to 'turn up' in the business however. Most CSR managers worth their salt will know the intrinsic truth of their corporate reality. Great ones know the answer to your question in 2 weeks not 2 years.

    Corin Millais

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