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Why we need to stop treating corporate responsibility as an act of heroism

I’ve been thinking on this for just over a year now, and I’ve been getting frustrated. I’m angry that we live in a world where the businesses we buy from aren’t programmed to seek opportunities to give back to their communities by default, where it’s still considered a cool thing to be a business that recycles. I’m exasperated that in 2017, sometimes we treat corporate responsibility like a greenies’ joke, not something to be taken seriously at the board table.

And the more I do, the more I feel clearly that corporate sustainability needs to become normal.

How do I know it’s not yet? Mostly because we’re still celebrating it.

We’re celebrating it like it’s an act of heroism to be a bit responsible, and not the most mundane expectation of being in business.

And we’re also still making really careless decisions: from branding foam stress-balls (that nobody needs), to giving out plastic forks at our corporate events. We’re acting like these consequences are not ours to own most of the time, and when we do own them, it’s a big deal; something to really be applauded.

The world I want to live in is one where your business’ decision to produce or use eco-packaging probably doesn’t win you praise, and it probably doesn’t even get blinked at. It’s just plain, boring, expectation. On the same level of ‘wow’ as you having a job, or going to the supermarket, or turning a basic profit as a business. All neat things, but nothing to write an article about.

But we’re a long way from this sort of dream.

The world we’re in – and I’m an optimist so I’m going to lead with this – is starting to really wake up to how rewarding good corporate sustainability can be.

We’ve got social enterprises springing up all over the show (the dream model), for profit companies like Allbirds and Flick Electric setting incredible examples of businesses that have socially responsible cores and function successfully, and young things like me choosing careers specifically based on the impact we can have.

For once, corporate sustainability seems to be going mainstream.

I recently met a 23-year-old who’s left his first job after five months because there’s no social responsibility game there for him. I have so much respect for this – there is so much more driving this next generation of workers than just money, and if you’re not onto this shift yet, it’s worth looking at how you are going to be. 

It’s the new problems like this facing the workplace that make me hopeful for our future. “How are we going to be impactful enough to attract the right talent to our business” = just about the best problem businesses could have.

But on the flip side of this, we’ve still got fruit double wrapped in plastic at our supermarkets, tourism taking New Zealand to its ecological capacity brink, and runoff destroying our waterways. We’ve got corporates employing 400 people operating without clear corporate sustainability programmes, and a plethora of medium-sized businesses that don’t feel like it’s on them to actually do something yet.

Is it just on the government to lead the reduction of carbon emissions? Or is there room for some corporate leadership here?

The reality is, this corporate sustainability stuff is not yet seen as clearly defined, a necessity, or even a priority for a lot of businesses.

Since talking to business owners up and down the country about this, I’ve heard two major schools of thought in response to this statement. The first, is that you can’t expect an SME to be focusing on social responsibility. It’s just not realistic, and it’s a distraction from what they need to be really doing, which is establishing themselves operationally and managing the cashflow headaches of being a new business.

The second reason I hear is from the board of director types, and it’s usually that ‘you shouldn’t judge’ because ‘we do a lot of small things for the community’, or maybe that ‘just by being in business, we’re helping to do a good thing’.

They’re both relatively valid and balanced points.

But at the same time, there’s a piece of the conversation missing here.

Maybe we’re not talking about the advantages of corporate responsibility enough. 

Although I hope for a world where a business being responsible for their impact on society is normal – for the time being, it’s still an incredibly attractive point of difference for the market. It draws customers to you – and ultimately, it makes them loyal.

Metro Marketing has seen this. I’ve been around this business since I was about 12, and have seen first hand how giving relentlessly to community projects (in the forms of free marketing strategy, design, and time) has delivered back to us a hundred fold. And not in that ugly greenwashing sort of way, in the ‘you do good in this community and this community wants to work with you’ sort of way. It was this behaviour (I’m not even sure if I call it a strategy) that helped see our business grow from three people in a garage, to eighteen people in offices across Hamilton, Tauranga, Rotorua, and Wellington in the space of about two years.

In many respects, this case is not isolated. Businesses that engage with their community report better staff engagement, stronger talent, and better brand loyalty. In some ways, I would challenge a small business to not become stronger as a result of giving back to its community. And still, it’s not a greenwashing thing. It’s a ‘be a good business’ thing. Sell a good product first, sure, and Joey Zwillinger of Allbirds taught me this – sustainability doesn’t sell, the product does, but sustainability grows loyalty, and so you can and should be about delivering both.

On the corporate side of things, I want to drill home the point on staff engagement and talent pools. The we-do-small-things-here-and-there-approach is great if it’s genuine, and I’m not going to snub it, because it’s awesome you’re even doing something – and let’s keep positive. But if you’re not organised, actively including your staff in creating what social responsibility looks like for your team, and engaging with your community in a deliberate way, then I fear that time slips by. Soon six months has gone and your business has earned $X thousand in profit, and you’ve not done more than give $2000 to your neighbour’s kid’s football team.

It’s just not enough to count anymore, and I’m sorry if you feel differently.

Your staff probably see through it too. So before you pat yourself on the back and feel better, remember that a progressive company will aim to spend around two percent of its profit on its community. In India this is compulsory. I challenge you to do the math to see if your business is really delivering on this in a meaningful, organised and purposeful way. If you’re earning around $100,000 a year in profit, then $2000 annually is a good start.

If earning more? It might be time to start the times by .02 equations.

So yes, if you want a number, I give you two percent New Zealand. Just two percent of your profit (or maybe time, about seven days a year per team member) back to your community, so you can help grow a better New Zealand for us all. That’s what realistic standards for corporate responsibility in 2017 look like for us for right now.

The next step is about making it mundane, but to get there, we’ve first got to make it easy. Easy to discuss, deliver, plan for and report on. That’s my mission with Step Changers – to show businesses everywhere why corporate responsibility makes more sense, and what it looks like for them.

The key to remember is that it’s not just about what you put out into the community, it’s about your impact operationally too. For today, if you really want to win brownie points (and I say this with a bit of a cynical tone), then you’ll also look at your operations plan and start getting a bit serious on the waste reduction thing. And again, for clarity, there is not a single person in this world that needs your branded stress balls.

It’s these small changes that collectively get us closer to the dream of making corporate sustainability normal. For today, profit remains a dirty word, because profit without contribution back to the communities you benefit from is a dirty thing.

We just have to keep making this normal. Start by having the two percent conversation at your workplace and getting honest on what you’re delivering, and let me know what you think in the comments.

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