H+K US’s Head of Corporate Social Responsibility, Hannah Peters sat down with H+K Austin’s Jason Stanford for the latest H+K interview. The interview took place on Nov. 1.
What’s the biggest misconception about corporate sustainability?
That it’s “nice to have” or something that can be limited to an external partnership or sponsorship. At this point, corporate sustainability is truly table stakes when it comes to meeting the expectations of both internal and external stakeholders. It’s not just about doing what’s right for the planet, it’s also about creating efficiencies and innovations that drive bottom line value – as P&G says, it’s about being a force for good and a force for growth.
Larry Fink wrote that he expects companies to lead in solving social problems, but that’s easier said than done, isn’t it? What’s the right way for a company to pick what issue to lead on?
Taking a position on a social issue is tricky, but it’s increasingly something that consumers expect and look for. Many consumers are frustrated by a perceived paralysis and polarization in Washington, DC – they aren’t seeing the progress and solutions they hope for in the public sector so they’re looking to the private sector. That said, any engagement on a social issue has to feel authentic or it will backfire – it has to have relevance to a brand and be something both internal and external stakeholders care about.
What are some common mistakes brands make when trying to engage in corporate sustainability?
Not ensuring alignment with and commitment to CSR and sustainability from the top down – these efforts have to be integrated throughout the enterprise and without C-Suite and board level support, that simply won’t happen. Underestimating the savviness of stakeholders and falling into a trap of “greenwashing” rather than being honest about where they might be in a CSR/sustainability journey and taking a tough and transparent approach to pursuing progress. Not taking steps to truly engrain and operationalize CSR/sustainability in an organization – trying to “bolt it on” to something rather than giving it the leadership and headcount it deserves.
What’s the biggest change in CSR since you started doing it?
Five years ago, I was happy if we could get mid-level communications managers to recognize the value and importance of CSR/Sustainability. Now, it’s not unusual for us to get a face-to-face audience with a CEO or COO – there is a broad recognition within the C-Suite, with investors, that CSR and sustainability matter and are good for business.
You were telling me earlier that one of the latest trends in CSR is pre-competitive partnerships, but I was too embarrassed to ask what in the heck that meant. Can you give me an example that might clue me in?
Pre-competitive partnerships are an incredibly exciting trend in CSR/sustainability, and frankly something that reassures me about the future of business and the future of our planet. Simply put, it’s about creating a safe, collaborative space where companies that would typically compete in the marketplace can instead work side-by-side to solve an environmental or societal problem. Great examples of pre-competitive partnerships in the sustainability space include the Ellen MacArthur Foundation Circular Economy 100 (CE 100) or Global Commitment, the Alliance to End Plastic Waste or the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.
Who is doing sustainability especially well?
So many companies! I am personally partial to large, global companies that are using their size and scale for good in ways that can make a truly lasting impact. In my mind, big does not equal bad, in fact it can mean the opposite. If you think about a company like P&G that touches 5 billion people every day through its brands, when it sets new sustainability criteria for its top 20 brands to adhere to, that will make a difference around the world. When a company like TerraCycle partners with some of the world’s largest brands to create circular and sustainable packaging solutions, that will make a difference around the world. When the world’s biggest retailer insists that its suppliers match its sustainability commitments, that will make a difference around the world. I’m just as interested in the smaller, more nimble purpose-driven startups as the next person, but I see the greatest promise in companies that are truly equipped to create sustainability at scale.