Sustainability: Being good, not just doing good

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Historically, corporate social responsibility has put the emphasis on how businesses are doing good. It’s become an increasingly varied checklist of “things we’ve done right”. Today though, socially aware audiences want more. They increasingly make judgments about you based on your overall likeability. They want to do business with brands that are good.

And that in turn means that, at a social level, your reputation depends less on your ability to simply highlight good works done in isolation (through community activities or sponsorships for example), and much more on your ability to show that you are inherently principled in your dealings and that you behave consistently across your organisation in ways that align with your social and commercial reputation.

That shift in the significance of social actions has a downstream effect on critical social initiatives such as sustainability. In my opinion, they should no longer be seen as nice-to-haves or even as opportunities to improve efficiencies across your supply chain. Rather, the actions you take in these areas are competitive opportunities to distinguish your company from others. Your social actions help define and demonstrate your ‘moral compass’ – and in positioning you as transparent, consistent, reliable and principled, they add value to dealing with you. They also help swing the dialogue, and therefore the consideration set, away from just price.

People like good brands. They trust them. They believe them. They see value in them. They see them as the counter to unethical behaviours. Subconciously, they look for opportunities to favour them. For those reasons, good brands carry lower “social risk”. They are less likely to draw adverse reaction, less likely to make the news for all the wrong reasons, much less likely to have their actions and motivations questioned.

But – and it’s a very important but – your social actions will only work to reinforce your standing as a business that is good to do business with if they are communicated in ways that directly link how you act with what customers can expect. With sustainability now treated virtually as a compliance matter in so many B2B exchanges, and expected by customers as part of how business is now done, the temptation, as I alluded to earlier, is to rattle off a list of “social” achievements and consider the boxes ticked. That in my view is an opportunity wasted. Rather than treating your sustainability actions as a list of initiatives, I suggest you look to present what you are doing as intrinsic social proof for why you deserve preference; for why you’ve earned the status of “a good brand” amongst the people who buy from you.

Take a food company with a sincere commitment to deep traceability in its supply chain. The temptation is to report on where ingredients were sourced and perhaps to elaborate on what standards were met. Such a description explains how the company approaches sustainability but does not do full justice to its actions. The real opportunity lies in explaining why the business went looking for such alternative sourcing in the first place and how that commitment aligns with their wider motivations to do the right thing. In other words, if you are that food company, don’t just tell your customers that you buy ethically. Tell them why you buy ethically, why your ethical stance is unique, how that aligns with the real actions that need to be taken, and what that says about your brand more broadly. Traceability should be aligned with the business’s worldview.

Two thoughts to close:

1. If you are investing in social actions such as traceability, diversity and sustainability, do so because they fit with who you are, and be proud of that. Make them an intrinsic expression of your DNA, not just something you do to fit in alongside everyone else.

2. If you’re concerned that you haven’t taken full competitive advantage of these actions, try testing the market effectiveness of your actions with some searching lines of enquiry. In the case of your sustainability story, consider this question, asked from the point of view of your customers: “When we bought from you – what changed in the world, how did you make that happen, why does that matter to me, and why will buying from you ensure things continue to improve?”

Your responses, told well, can certainly form part of the proof that you are better, in every sense, than your competitors.

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