"Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a continuum rather than a definition. It is constantly evolving and changing in context, and that's how responsibility should be viewed."
But for Seventh Generation, CSR has meant putting a stake in the ground on natural resources, staying firm, and leading change. While cofounder Jeffrey Hollender might emphasize that corporate responsibility is better off without the "social" in it, his ethos of social justice meant talking about resource scarcity and sustainability when neither were popular or understood.
The above statement, however, was not Hollender but Owen Milne, the director for development with Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR) -- a nonprofit business trade organization, which advances business ethics that advance a triple bottom line, here in Vermont.
On hand to interview Chris Miller, Director for Corporate Consciousness with Seventh Generation on Day 2 of University of Vermont's workshop on sustainable business practices, Milne confessed that many of his answers of what makes a brand sustainable or socially responsible, came by constantly assessing the factors and "through a process of measurement."
For Hollender, said Miller, measurement wasn't the key driver or the influencer.
"In Jeff's mind, a sustainable brand sought to do something good in the world. This included fair treatment of employees, dealing with and sourcing a responsible supply chain and manufacturers, etc. He used his view of social justice to form a sustainable company," he said.
And so far, the ideology has worked, with a few challenges along the way.
Seventh Generation employees swear by the company, the brand continues to win every award out there for sustainability and green branding, and Hollender, despite not being a formal member of the company any longer, remains a vocal and busy activist in the sector.
But for those who continue to differentiate between CSR, sustainability, and social justice, this probably sounds more of a challenge than an accomplishment. To straighten things up, Milne turned to the class to identify challenges they might be facing in pursuing sustainability at their companies.
The list, while similar to the one I built from the recent GRI launch in New York, spoke of an ongoing feeling of dislocation among practitioners. Remember that the class consists not only of students but also seasoned professionals, entrepreneurs, and idea hunters.
- Lack of standards
- Skeptics: Internal and External
- Lack of a level-playing field
- Lack of real impact
- Disparity in product claims
Miller's list was smaller:
- Absolute Transparency
- Third-party assessment: Tools like GRI, the CERES roadmap to sustainability, and the ISO standards, are important third-party scorecards for any company looking to measure their accountability and make foolproof.
- Employee perception: One that is often the focus of my work here on Vault's CSR blog. A company's employees are its most important asset, despite being a cost item on the P&L statement as a recruiter recently pointed out to me. Their perception of a company's worth, ideals and commitments far outweigh all your internal communication efforts. Get them on your side by being authentic, engaging them on strategy and real impact, and making their personal development part of your brand growth.
- Mindsets (consumers and employees)
"One of the best things Jeff instituted is always being willing to talk about our mistakes. To present the ugly right next to all the good. This helps our company to continue to command trust, respect and maintain authenticity in everything we say and do," he added.
So, how do people best lead their companies on sustainable practices?
While Milne felt that this was "hard to do without an autonomous culture in place," Miller had the following suggestions. As you go through these, remember to pick what fits your company best by context and most impact:
- Develop coalitions within your company to help build on energizing other employees and leadership on sustainability;
- Start the process of becoming a B-Corp;
- Use the 20 key expectations laid out in the CERES roadmap to sustainability to benchmark your brand and then make informed progress;
- Run sustainability as a risk assessment tool across all departments, and see the brains start to work.
Next: Saleem Ali, UVM Professor and author of Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed, and a Sustainable Future asks "Would the world be a better place if we curbed our desires for material goods?"
Are We Nothing More Than 'Homogeneous Globules of Desire'?