By Alison Gutterman
Has your business taken environmental, social, and governance stances yet? According to research from McKinsey & Co., ESG issues are a hot-button topic in the world of corporate social responsibility. In fact, organizations have already contributed $23 trillion toward increasing their ESG initiatives.
Why all the fuss over all things CSR? Essentially, CSR has become a differentiator among otherwise similar brands. Once an afterthought, it’s now a vital conversation topic for legacy and emerging companies. After all, consumers are spending judiciously; they’ll put more of their hard-earned money into supporting a service or product that's on a socially responsible mission.
In this climate, business leaders have to make practical choices regarding social issues. In other words, they must make strong stances. Playing both sides of the fence doesn’t work, especially in an era when social media puts political, economic, interpersonal, and environmental issues front and center.
On the Front Lines: A Look inside Pragmatic CSR Decision-Making
The role of the CEO has forever changed thanks to movements like #MeToo, suicide awareness, school violence, and, most recently, the debate over immigration. Contemporary concerns impact everyone, and people want to know that the companies they support align with their beliefs. Consequently, leaders must be ready to draw lines in the sand.
Is it tough? Perhaps, but I usually come toward any choice from a human perspective. For instance, I believe most people don’t want their daughters, wives, mothers, or any women to be harassed in or out of the workplace — just like all parents want their children to be safe at school. Those aren’t controversial or debatable points; they’re common sense.
Of course, what we do with those value propositions is where the rubber meets the road. At Jelmar, we’ve canceled television advertising on channels that seem aggressive in tone to those with less power. Why? I believe that politicians must be representative of the country. America is multicultural with a variety of socioeconomic strata. Thus, I don’t want to put dollars toward programming that I feel represents a one-sided constituency.
Of course, it’s difficult for small businesses to take the same route if they don’t have big budgets. As the old saying goes, there’s power in numbers. Big corporations might seem like they have the loudest voices, but when smaller organizations team up, they are a force to be reckoned with. And that gives them more strength to do what’s right.
If you’re just starting to develop a CSR plan, use these ideas as launching pads:
1. Uncover “common ground” platforms on hot-button topics.
Generally speaking, subjects that most people agree upon are low-hanging fruit when it comes to defining your CSR viewpoints. Find the common ground, and see what other organizations are doing to support it.
For example, I’ve made it clear that I’m a strong proponent of safe schools for kids. That’s Jelmar’s common ground. While the topic of gun control is an incredibly divisive topic that your company might not want to take a stance on, we can all agree that we want our children to be safe at school.
2. Talk about politics at the watercooler — respectfully.
Jelmar is a family business, so sometimes that leads to intense political conversations like you might have at the dinner table with family members — but we have to work together. That might not be the most politically correct thing to do, but you know what? Having this type of robust engagement helps us solidify our corporate culture. We don’t feel like we need to bottle our opinions. Everyone’s secure because we discuss subjects thoughtfully and with a measured approach.
3. Back up your business operations with your beliefs.
Each time you encounter a CSR topic you’re passionate about, go beyond giving it lip service. A great example is making an investment to work only with vendors whose ESG philosophy dovetails with your own. Although you might incur more costs upfront to switch suppliers, you’ll be making a point that like-minded consumers will appreciate — and pay you for in loyalty.
4. Personalize your message occasionally.
Do you have a strong connection to a specific issue? Does it somehow connect to your journey as a business leader or your employees’ experiences? Share your story in a personal way by talking about what you believe and why. Don’t be afraid of letting your voice be heard. More people probably agree with your statements than you think. You’ll never know until you show your true colors.
5. Take heated, bold statements to your personal pages.
Sometimes, you might feel strongly about something that you don’t want to connect directly to your brand. In that case, you can still speak up on a different forum. I've made my Facebook page a place where I can feel safe posting personal opinions. I make sure to check the privacy settings of each post before publishing so I know who I am sharing my thoughts with. My friends and family still might not agree with me, but I can be a little more free with my thoughts without it affecting others in my company who might not share the same views as me or be comfortable sharing their views.
No company is too young or small to share its social, ethical, and political values. Customers expect their favorite brands to hold and share opinions. Not everyone will agree with you, but you’ll sleep well at night knowing that you’ve pushed forth messages you can stand behind.
Alison Gutterman is the president and CEO of Jelmar, the family-owned cleaning products manufacturer of CLR and Tarn-X products. She began her career at Jelmar in 1993 without a title or a desk, and in 2007 she was named president, bringing the company unprecedented success with her modern approach and leadership techniques. She also balances work with parenthood as a single mother of two children, and she resides in the greater Chicago area.