What is Corporate Sustainability, Anyway?

When people see my business card or ask me what I do, the next question always is, “What’s corporate sustainability?” They often think that it means keeping a company afloat. That’s only part of it!

Times have changed. People want to know more about where the materials come from that make their products. It matters to them that their coffee is fair trade, that their food wasn’t made with mystery meat or by destroying rainforests, and their shoes were not assembled in some sweatshop by five-year-olds halfway around the world. In other words, they are holding companies accountable.

If you want to get a better idea of what I mean by that, there was a certain candy company who had a palm oil problem back in 2010. Greenpeace discovered that the palm oil they were using was being harvested in an awful, irresponsible manner by a company in Indonesia and was destroying the habitat of orangutans. Greenpeace first asked nicely, and then started a highly effective social media campaign to educate their base of consumers about what was going on. They targeted this particular company for a few reasons: first, brand recognition: it is a huge, well-known brand. Second, they worked with the ill-reputable supplier, and third: they were a huge purchaser of palm oil in general. The campaign forced the candy people to make a response and to implement changes.

My job is to figure that stuff out before it becomes a problem. There are a few strategies to dealing with these things.

First, you need to know and understand the supply chain. If you are working with materials, you can’t just go with the cheapest supplier anymore. You have to not only know where it is coming from but how they’re getting it. As a company, you can put pressure on suppliers to do things in an ethical, environmentally sound manner.

Second: corporate accounting. People don’t want to hear about CEOs getting billion-dollar bonuses while their products are made for 10 cents each by taking advantage of a developing nation. The money-is-everything mentality no longer applies. You can make a nice profit, satisfy your shareholders, and compensate ALL employees (whether they are in the same country as corporate HQ or somewhere else) fairly. There is a balancing act here but it is possible.

Third is branding. Let people know what you’re doing: tell them you are a company with values and then show them how you incorporate that into your business practices. If you want to be known as an ethical company, you need to make sure your brand reflects your mission. Release reports to keep people updated on your progress.

The main concept here is simple: if your supply chain is sourced ethically and responsibly, you assure access to the supply in the long term. That’s better for the longevity of your business. If you treat all employees with fairness and compensate them accordingly, you ensure their loyalty and will get better quality work. If you successfully market your brand as an ethical and responsible company, you gain public respect and trust. Then when it comes time to purchase a product, people are more likely to choose the one they trust.

With corporate sustainability, everyone wins.