I keep on reading that companies are doing great work on the climate change and general sustainability front. Renewable energy commitments, zero emissions, forests being hugged – all the good stuff that should make us feel warm and fuzzy. So why are we still in so much trouble?
Why is climate change running hot? (Pun absolutely intended). Why are we still losing forests left, right and center? Why are we still fighting for basic worker rights? Why is the gap between the rich and poor expanding faster than our economy? Why are people dying of diseases that have a known cure? Why are we going to miss so many of the Millennium Development Goals [MDGs]? Why did Wilson throw that ball? (Go Pats!)
The simple truth is that a majority of companies are still simply not doing their part. For every forward looking one out there, we have a thousand bad ones. How do we make sense of this? As per my usual habit, I drew a picture on a white board under our “Soapbox Issue(s) of the Week” to try and make sense of it all.
Full transparency: Our 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer is out. But I am not going to enunciate further on this study. Just follow the link and see for yourself. You’ll find facts, figures, graphs, insights, trends and all that good stuff I know you will like.
What I am more interested in talking about are a few things that you won’t find in the details of the study — the hidden truths that emerge when you add a sustainability lens to the information. Why aren’t companies trusted by the public?
Trust isn’t rocket science. You don’t have to over analyze why there is a lack of trust in this world. Look at what is right in front of the average person, and ask yourself if you would trust business if the shoe was on the other side.
I know you are going to be flooded and fooled by a million pieces of cool new trends for 2015. Yawn … How about trends we want to see the end of in 2015? Here are the few I would really like to wave goodbye to this year.
1. The circular distraction
Can we stop making up new jargon for old and tested ideas? Just because some hipster and cooler-than-us-old-skool-sustainability-nerds kid comes up with a fancy new name doesn’t mean it is actually a new idea. A few years ago it was “shared value” that got under my skin – packaging what we’ve been doing for a while into a brand new box. Now everyone is on about the circular economy … Really? Nice that the rest of the world is catching up with what has been at the forefront of sustainability thinking since John Elkington and others opened Pandora’s sustainability box. It’s not new. Just a shiny new name but really a circular distraction.
2. “Everything is sustainable”
No it isn’t. Sustainability is a simple concept of making sure the impact we have today does not impact the ability of future generations to enjoy living on this earth and using those same resources. Simple, right? Then how can tobacco companies call what they do sustainability? They know what the end product does actually kills future generations of potential users. That’s the easy one. Same goes for companies dependent on fossil fuels for their existence. You take stuff from the ground and then use it in a way that doesn’t make it possible to use it again. Yeah, that’s not sustainable. You can be a responsible company, but your main product is not sustainable.
Let’s not confuse the issues, and let’s call it what it is. A hat is a hat. A dog is a dog. Sustainability is sustainability. CSR is CSR. Stick with the accepted definitions. Leave it to politicians to redefine language each election cycle.
Shayna Samuels and Glenn Turner of Ripple Strategies wrote a great piece on the reasons why a social mission should be at the heart of your marketing. I’ve been lucky enough to work with the mother of cause and brand marketing, Carol Cone, since I landed in the U.S. many years ago – hi mom! And I am surrounded by people chipping away at companies to convince them to bring a social mission to their business and to bring it to life in creative ways. The missing social mission … Having a social mission as a central part of who you are as a business has been at the front of what we’ve been trying to tell companies over here in the sustainability/CSR/purpose/shared value/citizenship/whatevergetsyougoing space.
The one essential thing so many companies miss completely when it comes to a social mission is that it isn’t a choice but a given. You either have a social mission as part of your company identity or you are selling snake oil. Your choice.
Let’s go back to the beginning of almost every company that exists today: You can find a clear social mission at the heart of why they started as a business. I’m not going to spend any time on the easy ones like TOMS or Tesla — they are still young and new enough to remember, and their business model is still fresh enough as a reaction to a social need. But the same goes for those large companies that have been around for ages. Take a company like Tesco that was founded with a simple social purpose of getting affordable surplus groceries to the poorest communities as close to their homes as possible. AT&T can trace its roots back to the Bell Co., which wanted to help connect people — sounds like Facebook today. BASF can trace its roots back to bringing light to the previously dark town of Mannheim. Cargill helped farmers store their grain in more effective ways through grain flat houses. Bank of America was founded to help new immigrants as most existing banks in America refused to provide them with basic services. And so the list goes on and on — social mission at the heart of where most companies started.
And then so many lost their way.
Last time around I got a few people upset when I wrote that activists saying they want to engage was little more than “sound washing.” Two weeks in beautiful Kauai, Hawaii doing extreme marathon hammocking with a Mai Tai (or two) didn’t make me change my mind, but it did make me ponder the typical response by companies.
I’ve worked with many companies on stakeholder engagement and help many of them understand activists and activist campaigning — and they are as guilty of getting it wrong as the activists themselves. No, I take that back. They get it wrong more often than activists. There are a few common myths that almost every single client gets wrong, and it’s fun calling them out before I even start working with a client. I won’t list them all — hey, I need to keep some secrets to earn a living — but let me share one that every company consistently gets wrong.
“Activists do it for the money.”
No, they don’t … Activists should not be confused with other nonprofits and foundations. They make next to nothing compared to not only the business and government sector but also compared to most of the nonprofits and foundations. Just peruse some of the sites advertising activist jobs, such as Idealist or OneWorld or the individual sites of activist organizations such as Greenpeace, Oxfam, etc.
A very senior Greenpeace International executive recently came under fire from within the organization for, amongst others, the “extravagant” monthly salary of around $8,000 per month. Yes, that is a lot of money when compared to the average income of a supporter or to the average income in any country but let’s be very clear here — it is nothing when compared to similar positions at a government, corporate, large nonprofit or foundation level. The position of this person was similar to a senior executive at most global companies or senior government level. Does that sound like a salary earned by the average corporate or government senior executive? Not even close.
By Henk Campher
I’m a recovering activist. From being a trade unionist and anti-Apartheid activist to being an African development worker and running campaigns for Oxfam. Note I didn’t say an ex-activist because you can never be an ex-activist. Activism stays in your blood, and you stay hooked once you get hooked the first time. But I am a recovering activist because I am trying to get over it and working on activism 3.0. We’re in 2.0 right now, but that is a story for another day.
First let me say that not all nonprofits are born the same and neither are all activists born the same. I see activists as the Greenpeace, Oxfam, Friends of the Earth, PETA and Rainforest Action Network type and not the Conservation International, WWF or The Nature Conservancy type. This last set is better at running programs on the ground but not so great at running activist campaigns, partly because they work too closely with the business community. And they hardly ever run a campaign that really annoys the living hell out of business. Maybe that should be the main criteria: Have you annoyed business to a high enough level with your campaigning?
Secondly, what I am about to write is not meant to slam these activists at all. They play an absolutely crucial role in society. Without them we will hardly ever see the change needed to build a more just and a “greener” world. Thanks to them we ended slavery; the coffee industry is more equitable; more people have access to much needed medicine; whales are more protected; child labor is outlawed in most countries; and every issue from climate change, to poverty, to animal protection is brought to light each and every day. But just because they are our conscience doesn’t mean they play fair. Or that they should play fair…
However, we do need to call them out when we smell something wrong. And there is one major lie that always gets to me when I hear it. The “let’s engage” lie. No, you don’t really want to engage.
By Henk Campher
I know, it’s been a while. Too many conferences and a book thrown in the mix too. Plug here – “Creating a Sustainable Brand.” The good news is that enough has happened since my last post to write a whole series of Quick & Dirty’s… This world of sustainability just doesn’t let up. And while many business continue to inspire me, just as many continue to make me perspire.
Two articles that stood out tackled an issue that continues to baffle me — the lack of true leadership amongst businesses. The first article tackled the lack of movement by companies on reporting on conflict minerals and the second dealt with how the lack of ethics can doom capitalism. Both of these highlights a common issue in the business world — the lack of leadership and the impact on how society views business.
We’ve seen trust in business continue to drop radically. Businesses are blamed for every ill in the world — from climate change; to corruption; to child labor; to chemicals in our food and clothes; to lack of transparency around GMOs and every other ingredient; to [fill in the blank]. Yes, it seems unfair that business gets targeted, but is it really that unfair? Do business show true leadership on these issues, or do they dance around the tough challenges?
By Henk Campher
One of the many interesting side discussions I had was with Christine Bader, John Friedman and a few others about how CEOs say they want to lead when it comes to sustainability but most of them are completely absent in the debate. There are leaders — like Elon Musk from Tesla, Sir Richard Branson from Virgin, Craig Jelinek from Costco and Blake Mycoskie from TOMS — who have taken up very vocal and thoughtful leadership roles. But in most cases, CEOs say they want to lead but go completely missing when it comes to substance. They give us the usual “it is in our DNA” nonsense and jargon and lack substance to back it up. Sometimes they even give us the “our employees are our greatest asset” baloney.
When we are lucky these empty words will give us lots of hot air for a little while, but many CEOs aren’t willing to take up true leadership. To lead is to suffer the consequences of leading; to sometimes have to take people (consumers, investors, employees, etc.) to places they do not want to go. That is what leadership requires — brave and bold like a Star Trek captain who will “boldly go where no man has gone before.” Unfortunately most business leaders are just plain missing in action and hiding behind the soft and cozy walls of “investment community.” That isn’t leadership. That is the yes-men mentality that has taken hold amongst too many leaders.
Novel idea: To be a thought leader you need a thought — and you need to lead. A bit of both please.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”
Wow… And I thought this was the opening paragraph of “A Tale Of Two Cities.” Maybe it was, but it best describes how I feel about rankings, ratings, awards and everything else the experts do when they try to tell us which company just passed sliced bread as the best sustainable thing ever. Better than the real thing. Better than all the rest. Simply the best.
This time it wasn’t the usual daily-inbox-flooding set of Top 100 or Best Of or Greenest or Most Loved lists that got me going. This time it was one of my favorite morning reads, the Consumerist — usually the place I go for a quick chuckle about who got into what trouble while I was sleeping. But this time it got me a bit worked up because it is the start of their 2014 Worst Company In America competition.
There were a few names on there that I don’t like and would put on my personal list, too. But the thought that hit me first when I read the list was the Twitter joke #firstworldproblems.
Looks like hip new disrupter of motor vehicles, Tesla, is running into a few problems selling those silent vehicles of tomorrow. You would swear they are silent killers the way the motor vehicle dealers are complaining and moaning about Tesla selling their cars directly to those who want to bypass the good old carbon-coughing combustion engine. Five states have banned Tesla selling directly to the consumer – New Jersey being the latest. Christie decided to stop Tesla like traffic trying to cross a bridge…
But I’m not here to talk about Tesla. I want one but can’t afford one even though the company has a location literally just down the road from where I live, and no, they are not a client so I have no skin in this game. But I am having issues with the fake free market advocates.
The myth of the “free market”… So often business and its sidekick the business association use the free market as their defense against any threat of government regulations or anyone talking about the need for companies to focus a wee bit on sustainability or CSR or, the hot new favorite, shared value. Please, the concept of the “free market” is as big a lie as the urban myth that Mr. Rogers was a Navy Seal. Or that the check is in the mail. Or the Cubs winning the World Series next year. Or any year.