By Joe Lawless
Recently the University of Washington Milgard School of Business Center for Leadership and Social Responsibility convened a summit for thought leaders in corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability leadership to discuss the role of “and” and “why” in CSR and how these two important concepts intersect. The conversations were invigorating, varied and challenged organizations to create positive change. The themes that emerged from the day were two simple but profound, short words; one a conjunction and the other an adverb.
The conjunction “AND” emerged strongly in all of the talks. Joe Whinney of Theo Chocolate spoke of a new kind of company focused on profits and making a difference in cocoa growing regions of the world by paying fair wages to farmers. Peggy Willett from Getty Images spoke about protecting intellectual rights and creating a new system (announced that day) that allows individual non-commercial users to embed Getty images without risk of stealing photographers’ rights. Jackie Drumheller of Alaska Airlines talked in detail about how the airline is working hard to make its fleet the most fuel efficient fleet it can, minimizing costs for the company and helping the environment.
The tired old argument that business can either make a profit or be socially responsible and sustainable just doesn’t resonate within the context of a multi-stakeholder view of enterprise. In the words of former REI CEO and current Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell: “Companies that fail to do this are really putting their overall businesses at risk, because it is not going to be too long from now that doing ‘less bad’ isn’t going to be good enough in the minds of our customers, employees and regulators. They expect us to do ‘more good’ with our business.”
Profit and purpose, sales and sustainability – this is the new, much more challenging and invigorating business model. The “or” model has caused a lot of problems, and has gotten us into a position that is, frankly, unsustainable. It is a lazy view of business that doesn’t capitalize on our creative potential to build and grow without taking and destructing, and that model no longer holds water with a new workforce that is demanding we do things differently…they are demanding “AND.”
The other word that emerged from the day of discussions was the adverb “WHY.” It was discussed in many different contexts, but the emerging question for many organizations is, “Why are we here, and what is our mission?” This has been a question historically reserved for the not-for-profit sector where mission-based organizations do good things for the community and the world. But should their tax status and their organizational structure give that sector exclusive ownership of “why?” It is a valuable question, and often there are equally valuable answers. If the NGO sector can make an impact on society by asking (and answering) this question, wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume that the exponentially larger business sector could make an exponentially larger impact by unleashing the power of “why?”
Throughout the day we heard company after company talk about why they protect consumers, why they ensure their supply chain is ethical, why they conserve energy, why they design safe environments and many more “why” questions. They didn’t always have the answer, but the power isn’t always in the answer as much as the engagement of employees, suppliers, owners, communities, regulators and all stakeholders in exploring the possibilities. Asking “why” and listening to the answers — exploring the possibilities — is the future of sustainable business. It is also the hallmark of great leaders.
The theme of our conference on corporate social responsibility was “Leadership and CSR,” and we explored the many ways that these two issues intersect. It was clear throughout the day that we weren’t just talking about leadership within businesses; instead, we were discussing how business can illuminate a path forward and lead the way. Business has to take back the leadership role in creating a more sustainable and just world. However, it must be business and government and NGOs making the changes. As I listened to the speakers talk about their companies, I heard the intersection of leadership and CSR at the corner of “and” and “why.”