A Sustained Focus on Sustainability13 years, 9 months ago
Tougher economic times could push corporate responsibility further down the business agenda. However, Neil Bayley believes that sustainability will continue to be of major importance.
In light of the current crisis in confidence, it would easy to assume that corporate responsibility (CR) might begin to slip down the agenda. Some businesses that have had a questionable commitment might see a money-saving opportunity, but those that have seriously embraced CR programmes as part of their brand building can accelerate ahead of the competition if they are prepared to stay the course.
I think one area of CR activity that will remain strong is sustainability. Concern over climate change has been the key driver behind European business environmental initiatives over the past five years. The ‘great green awakening’ has made many companies take a serious look at their own impacts. Just a couple of years ago, a survey by the management consultancy McKinsey found that 95% of CEOs believed society now had higher expectations of their businesses taking on environmental responsibilities than they did five years ago.
Some people would say ‘doing well by doing good’ does not necessarily translate to financial success. With the onset of recession, it would be much more sensible for businesses to focus on profits and let the environment look after itself. I disagree.
Considering long-term sustainability in business operations makes organisations more efficient and therefore less likely to suffer during a recession. It means providing solutions to customers that require less energy and produce less waste. By improving operations, a company reduces its environmental footprint. This saves it, and its customers, money.
IBM issued a report a year ago surveying 250 business leaders around the world in which more than two-thirds said they were focusing on social and environmental initiatives to create new revenue streams. More than half believed they were already seeing the competitive advantage that a proactive approach gives them over rivals.
I know from my own experience working with BT, Boots and clients such as HP and British Airways that developing a strong corporate responsibility programme, and integrating that into your brand and marketing, can deliver competitive advantage. Customers across all segments are much more aware of what makes a responsible company when they buy and are looking toward partners that can make the choice easy for them.
With businesses low on confidence and under increasing pressure, it would be easy for the perceived ‘nice to haves’ such as community programmes and environmental initiatives to suffer. And I have no doubt there is pressure on CR professionals as there is on all of their business colleagues.
Courage and clarity
Maintaining momentum will require clarity of thought and courage. But the experience of previous downturns suggests companies that emerge in pole position are those that have maintained their CR efforts. After all, there are plenty of good causes that need corporate support now more than ever.
Companies might change how they make their investments, because clearly different techniques work better at different times, but they have benefited from the fact customers appreciate companies that stay focused on the longer term.
Strong communication around CR activities will be more critical than ever in the battle for the attention and loyalty of customers whose confidence will be tested on a daily basis. The key is adaptability. If you can provide good news in a crisis, deliver to a new demand or present yourself as trustworthy when others falter, you have a great opportunity.
Neil Bayley is director and head of CSR comms at Porter Novelli.mail the author
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