It’s time to bring CSR and sustainability together

by Aug 9, 2018

In last week’s post, Daniel pointed out how Americans tend to conflate ideas, assuming a company cares about the planet simply because it makes a product that’s healthier for you and/or contains all natural ingredients. We see the same conflation with CSR and sustainability.

Good in general

When we ask people to name a company that cares about the environment, we’ll get some answers that clearly indicate they simply think the company is generally good, it has a strong sense of purpose and it treats people well. So just as folks think, “If a product is healthier for me, it must be made by a company that cares about the environment,” they also think, “A company that’s doing good in the world cares about the environment.”

Connecting your brand to the greater good

There’s a way in which Unilever has taken this frame and run with it. The company’s original Sustainable Living Plan was/is very focused on environmental impact. And, seemingly aligned with that idea, they’ve now classified 24 of their brands as “Sustainable Living Brands,” and put a strong “stand” at the center of each brand – an approach I’m a big fan of. The thing is that sometimes the stand is environmental in nature and sometimes it’s CSR in nature – think Dove’s Real Beauty campaign or Lifebuoy’s handwashing campaigns.

Don’t take that as a criticism of Unilever – it’s actually high praise. I think they’ve figured out something that many companies can learn from: Americans want to align themselves with brands that are doing good in the world. And that “good” needs to align with what the brand is known for, not something random. (You can read a lot more about this in our Brands and Stands report.)

It doesn’t matter to a consumer whether that “good” is environmental or social in nature … it’s all important and all one big ball of wax to the average American. They don’t get all hung up on terminology the way we in the industry do. Unilever has done this brilliantly.

So figure out the natural connection between your brand and the greater good – whether that’s people or the planet – make strong commitments in that area, and tell that story, ideally engaging your consumers into the story.

Organize for success

Once you’ve done that, bring your CSR and environmental departments together.

All too often we see companies put somebody in charge of CSR, and that person might live in the HR organization. Then that same company puts somebody in charge of sustainability (by which they mean environment) and places him/her in the EHS department, or in some department that has something to do with regulation and compliance. This needs to stop for two reasons:

  1. It sets up the classic right-hand-doesn’t-know-what-the-left-hand-is-doing scenario or, worse, two different messages/stories go to market so the end consumer doesn’t really know what you stand for – is it that people thing or that planet thing? And most folks can’t remember multiple stories about a brand – they can remember one story, if it’s a really good story.
  2. It also sets up a bit of a negative frame around sustainability, where CSR is all about helping people, lifting them up, empowering them … and sustainability is all about compliance, not getting into trouble, not damaging anything.

So bring the two functions of CSR and sustainability together. Figure out what your company can stand for that will make a meaningful difference in the world while also aligning with your brand, and start taking bold actions and telling your story. You’re much more likely to reap the rewards of brand affinity and increased sales that way.

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About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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