Net Impact Soap Box

Friday, October 3, 2008

Corporate Sustainability: Still Cynical?

So you’re interested in “doing well and doing good,” you want a job that’s financially rewarding, and you’d even like to work for a large company. But, the pragmatist in you realizes this is a tough combination to reconcile. Large, publicly-traded and sustainable? Is this possible, or a paradox? A group of second-year MBA students held an intimate roundtable last Wednesday to share their experiences and tell us, yes, progressive and sustainability-focused companies do exist – it’s a matter of finding the right one!

The panel, entitled “Can Business Really Be Sustainable?,” asked five Haas students and moderator Megha Doshi to recount their experiences working in CSR and sustainability initiatives with multinational companies like Dow Chemical, Brown-Forman, Gap and Nike. A common thread ran through their stories: student is skeptical about the seriousness of large-scale corporate sustainability issues, student takes internship with market-leading company, student slowly sees that companies are starting to “get it” and affecting change. As panelist Mahta Eghbali explained about working for Gap, “I came in as a cynic but [the experience] silenced the cynicism. Some corporations do good work.”

The key phrase for me being “some corporations.” I’ve come fresh from the PR world, working for an agency where clients viewed CSR initiatives as a form of penance for past and future sins. At my firm, the key objective for any CSR initiative was improving brand image (and therefore increase sales), rather than serving some ingrown need to “do good.” And while this still characterizes most companies in the US business landscape, our panelists highlighted the key characteristics needed to find those companies that have gotten religious about making a difference:

1. Family-owned or community-centric. Brown-Forman and Gap are two companies that have strong ties to their founding families. This creates a tighter community, and allows the company to act as a vehicle for the family’s social causes, such as women in developing countries (Gap, Inc.) and responsible drinking practices (Brown-Forman).

2. Senior executive sponsorship for CSR initiatives. Panelist Mira Inbar recounted how executive buy-in at Dow Chemical allowed her project team to develop and pitch a business plan that is now being integrated throughout the company. Jeff Shah found that the leadership at Brown-Forman wanted to be authentic about their corporate social responsibility plans, and not just look as if they were jumping on the green bandwagon. They were thinking strategically, not reactively!

3. A strong belief in the product. The panelists felt that the most responsible companies truly believed in their products, and gave serious thoughts to how their products (and their companies) can make the world a better place. Megha realized that Nike is in midst of an existential discussion about the nature of consumption, and how improving the durability of their shoes might make them less money, but would improve the double-bottom line.

For the socially-minded MBA, there’s a growing field of opportunities to make a difference with large, market-moving companies. After the event, Megha gave the hint that this is just the tip of the iceberg. “More companies are realizing the need for CSR programs that are effective and real. Think of how far they’ve come from 5-10 years ago. It’s only going to get better.”

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