In 2015, Harvard Business Review added company ESG performance into the factors for determining its annual list of best-performing CEOs. A Nielsen survey the year before showed that 55% of global respondents would be willing to pay extra for products and services from companies that are committed to positive social and environmental impact.
In 2109, audiences are even more savvy. Corporate sustainability officers and social responsibility program managers know that consumers, investors and board members care more than ever about a company's values.
Putting a sustainability plan in place
A major organization may have many locations and different styles of local leadership. How does a CSO meet challenges in implementing cohesive sustainability programs?
According to Susan Rochford, Vice President, Energy Efficiency, Sustainability and Public Policy for Legrand North America, it’s important to have a clear road map endorsed by leadership that is communicated widely—and frequently.
"We customize communications to different audiences in the organization," says Rochford. "We get more specific and tactical with those that are responsible for the 'doing' on a specific objective, versus the general employee population."
Legrand formed cross-company teams at the outset, while the strategy was still being defined. "To truly integrate sustainability/CSR behaviors into the business requires a change in process, behavior and mindset across all functions, business units and locations," explains Rochford.
Gaining buy-in from the C suite
If you encounter reluctance to implement new initiatives, you must work to understand the objections to a given initiative. Then, use that insight to marshal the evidence for a stronger case.
"You may have to adapt the design of the initiative, or pilot it before going mainstream," advises Rochford. This might mean adjusting your schedule for deployment to accommodate changing resources or organizational needs.
Rochford suggests that CSOs "look through the lens of those of whom you are asking to change, to perceive what’s in it for them...Present the value of the initiative on multiple levels, from the big picture of sustainability...to the value to the business, customers or employees. But mostly, you don’t give up."
Just starting out in a corporate sustainability leadership role? Rochford emphasizes that it's important to have direct access to your company's CEO and confidence in their support. Patience helps, too. "Sustainability is not an overnight phenomenon," she notes.
Garrett Zink, Manager, Social Impact and Public Affairs at Marriott International, affirms the importance of internal buy-in. "Understand the priorities of your company and of your company’s leadership...Ultimately, you’ll need to be able to answer, 'How does this sustainability or social impact initiative enhance the business?'”
The growing importance of CSR
As the industry has evolved and grown more complex, Zink believes, it can seem challenging to keep up with increased expectations from consumers, potential talent and investors...but that's a good thing.
"It holds businesses up to a higher standard," says Zink. "With a new issue arising every day, it’s essential to view everything through the lens of where your business has its greatest responsibility and opportunity. Not every important issue is necessarily one in which your business should be involved."
When connecting your CSR program to the core competencies of the business, think about where you stand to have the most impact. "What would internal and external stakeholders expect from a company such as yours?" asks Zink. Zero in on a business need and a social or environmental need—and use that insight to craft a solution.
Leading change through clear communication
To make things happen, you must share information and strategy with stakeholders, and listen to them in turn.
"Communication is the lifeblood of any CSR program," says Rochford. "CSR and sustainability is about changing the way the business looks at and conducts its activities—a sustainability team or leader is a change agent by definition...the 'why, when, where and how' has to be effectively communicated in the right way to the right individuals," she says.
Zink advises staying closely connected with the people in your business who do not have “CSR” or “sustainability” in their job titles. "They will have different, and incredibly important, perspectives," he says. "Social impact is done best through constant collaboration, not in a silo."
Resources for corporate sustainability on Education @USGBC
Looking for corporate sustainability courses to aid in your work? USGBC Education Partner Sustainable Business Consulting offers a wealth of courses on Education @USGBC—topics such as forming sustainability strategy, overcoming implementation challenges, handling reporting and managing change, to name just a few.
In addition, USGBC and our Education Partners offer several case studies:
- The Business Case for Sustainable Design, by RWDI USA LLC
- Case Study: Natural Resources Defense Council, covering three NRDC corporate locations
- Walt Disney's Sustainability Initiatives, by the Green Building Research Institute
- Social Equity in the Built Environment, covering case studies of four different organizations
CSR at Greenbuild Atlanta
At Greenbuild Atlanta in November, check out these sessions related to CSR:
Thursday, Nov. 21, 11:15 a.m.–12:15 p.m. | 1 GBCI CE credit
In this intermediate-level Greenbuild session, hear from four business leaders about social justice transparency. Learn about various methods that global manufacturers use to gather social justice information and evaluate social impacts, as well as how such an evaluation benefits architecture, design and engineering firms.
Wednesday, Nov. 20, 4–5 p.m. | 1 GBCI CE credit
This intermediate-level session shares research on internal sustainability funds that can be used to help build a clear business case for sustainability; streamline the budgeting process; and demonstrate long-term commitment to environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance.
Make sure you're subscribed to our Greenbuild emails to hear about future calls for education proposals, if you'd like to present your own session.
USGBC organizational membership
Another way to boost your company's sustainability credentials is by encouraging organizational membership at USGBC. You can promote your affiliation with USGBC, LEED green building and sustainability by using our logo in communications, plus you gain savings on Education @USGBC subscriptions, LEED and other credentials, and Greenbuild registrations.
Membership also supports USGBC's CSR programs, such as the Advance Campaign for Social Equity, affordable housing, Learning Lab and Project Haiti.