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Opportunity Green Roundup: Perspectives from Heavy Hitters in CSR

| Thursday November 17th, 2011 | 0 Comments

The following post is a part of TriplePundit’s coverage of the 2011 Opportunity Green Conference in Los Angeles, California. To read all the posts in the series, click here.

IBM THINK Exhibit, Lincoln Center

This year, Opportunity Green showcased some of the most innovative companies working in the corporate social responsibility space. Leaders from IBM, Starbucks, KPMG, Dell, and Patagonia shared their biggest sustainability challenges and offered solutions. Below is a compilation of some of the innovative approaches they are using to make progress on sustainability issues for their organizations.

Be painfully transparent.
According to Ben Packard of Starbucks, “transparency has become the currency of trust.” For companies that have traditionally held their cards close to the chest, it can be frightening to start revealing information that could be interpreted negatively. The truth is, your customers, shareholders, and suppliers are talking about your company whether you like it or not. In order to be part of that conversation, companies need to be willing to share not just their successes, but also their challenges.

Continuously improve your data.
In order to feel comfortable with transparency, companies need to be confident in their data. And in order to get support for sustainability initiatives, CSR teams need to be able to quantify their results. According to Brad Sparks, Director of Global Green Initiatives, measurement and data integrity are two of KPMG’s biggest challenges, and they work nonstop on improving their data systems and estimations. One aspect of this issue has to do with measuring the less quantifiable outcomes of social programs, which often requires some creativity. Kathy Gerwig, Kaiser Permanente’s Environmental Stewardship Officer, measures the impact of Kaiser’s social programs using metrics such as lives touched or pounds of toxic material averted.

Make your message more visceral.
Although data is important, when communicating with consumers, numbers and statistics can easily be drowned out. People are constantly bombarded with facts and information and they can’t possible comprehend or absorb it all. Companies need to find unique, tangible ways to get people’s attention and engage them in different ways. That’s what IBM set out to do in creating its THINK exhibit. THINK is a series of interactive displays set up outside Lincoln Center that lets people explore how technology can improve our world. IBM’s approach created a visceral experience that helps people emotionally connect with the challenges we’re facing and shows them a path forward.

Tackle problems that customers care about.
Dell is known for the direct relationships it has with its customers. As such, the company’s CSR approach involves focusing very intentionally on issues that customers care about. Dell’s Oliver Campbell was clear that “if customers aren’t talking about it then we aren’t going to do it.” Their sustainability initiatives need to directly address a customer need. For example, their newly developed mushroom packaging was a direct response to complaints received about their bulky, unrecyclable server packaging. The challenge was designing an eco-friendly alternative that’s strong enough to protect $25,000 worth of equipment. The solution is a 100 percent compostable material that has better shock absorption characteristics than the foam they used to use and contains only 5 percent of the embedded carbon.

Think in systems.
One idea that came up at the conference, which I was pleased to hear about, was that of using a systems thinking approach to problems. Companies are starting to realize that many of their sustainability challenges cannot be addressed in isolation because the marketplace isn’t providing the necessary solutions. According to Lee Turlington, VP of Global Products for Patagonia, there were no supply chains to provide the high tech, sustainable materials the company needed for their products. They had to go out and create them by partnering with organizations representing all parts of the system including suppliers, customers, industry groups, and competitors. This emerging framework allows companies to unlock unseen value while also taking the solutions to a larger scale.

[Image credit: Devyn Caldwell, Flickr]

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Kara Scharwath is a corporate social responsibility professional, marketing consultant and Sustainable Management MBA Candidate. She is currently working as a Graduate Associate in Corporate Citizenship at the Walt Disney Company while pursuing her degree at Presidio Graduate School.


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