Lessons From a Beloved Brand: Be Prepared to Counter CSR-Related Protests

By Nancy Himmelfarb

Last week the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) reported that 10 out of 11 samples of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream contained glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup herbicide.

The findings were a surprise to many of us, but not to Ben & Jerry’s. The company responded quickly and appropriately, staving off any significant reputation damage. The company acknowledged OCA’s claims, stating additional facts related to the ice cream products’ safety, and reaffirming the company’s specific commitments on ingredient sourcing and safety. Ben & Jerry’s was prepared.

How can your company prepare for potential CSR-related protests from OCA or an organization like it? Here is your four-step roadmap:

1. Identify your key stakeholders / public influencers

Your stakeholder list should include all individuals and organizations that you can reasonably expect to care about the impacts of your company’s activities and products. Stakeholders are those that could be affected by your business or its products, or affect your ability to achieve business goals. Obvious examples are consumers, employees, shareholders or other owners / investors, supply chain companies (e.g., raw material suppliers, packagers, distributors, and retailers) and their employees, plus local communities.

Public influencers include advocacy groups such as Oxfam and other NGOs, investor networks (e.g., Ceres and CDP), industry-specific media outlets, bloggers, and relevant professionals (e.g., health professionals care about nutrition). Look at recent public campaigns to identify influential NGOs and bloggers in your industry and their target companies.

2. Identify “hot button” CSR issues

Make a list of the key CSR issues affecting your company and important to your key stakeholders and public influencers. Many of the issues should seem very obvious. If you are in the food industry, for example, you know that ingredient sourcing is front and center. Think of the “free-from” buzz words (chemicals, preservatives, hormones, GMOs, etc.); animal welfare; local; and fair trade. For additional guidance, check out social media chatter on your company and peer companies. Also research the opinions of the key stakeholders and relevant public influencers that focus on your industry and interact with consumers.

3. Assess risks related to each hot button CSR issue
Consider your company’s current operations vis-à-vis the hot button CSR issues and the intensity of negative (or potentially negative) opinions of key stakeholders and public influencers. You will want to pay closest attention to those CSR issues that are most material to your business in terms of impacts and exposure. Next, consider pre-emptively engaging with specific individuals and organizations to better understand their viewpoints, objectives, and desired timelines. Finally, use your informed prioritization to determine potential next steps for new or updated CSR policies and management strategies.

4. Prepare a position on each hot button CSR issue

Your company’s position needs to be authentic, credible (backed by facts and by third party certifications, where appropriate), understandable, and sharable. For example, if your company says that raw materials are locally-sourced, you need a specific definition of “local” and a list of supplier locations that fits with the definition. If your company claims that products contain only cage-free eggs, you need a published set of supplier standards that specified “cage-free”, assurances that suppliers can meet the standards, and a system for periodic verification.

Make sure that your company has a position on every hot button CSR issue, even if the intensity of known opinions is low and your position is, “this issue is not a current priority for us for the following reasons.” If you do this, you will not be blindsided by a blogger that might raise alarm bells based on a gap in information disclosed by your company. Of course, you do not need to accommodate all stakeholder viewpoints, or even all of the loudest ones, and you do not need to publicize your position on every issue. You only need to have a position and an explanation for why you are (or are not) operating in specific ways.

Bad things happen, and people will be critical of your company’s CSR performance regardless. However, if you follow this roadmap, you will be prepared and can respond swiftly with honesty and transparency to any challenges.

Nancy Himmelfarb is Principal of NJH Sustainability Consulting. Based in Chicago, Himmelfarb helps companies create and leverage sustainable business strategies based on her unique combination of business, legal and sustainability expertise.

Corporate Responsibility

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