For Leading Companies, Thinking Outside the CSR Department May Be Best Solution For Integrating Sustainability
By: Meirav Even-Har, Toronto
In the environmental movement, the common saying is that NGOs work hard to put themselves out of business. In other words, the need to advocate for a cleaner, healthier environment with a thriving ecology should never be someone's job-it should simply be the status quo. It would be a good outcome to no longer have the need for environmental advocacy in our world. From a business perspective, a company is truly sustainable when it no longer needs to have a department or a person responsible for improving its environmental performance. It will function in a way that does not degrade the environment in which it operates. Although business has some ways to go before arriving at a zero harm stage, the question arises: does having a separate department or position responsible for "the environment" cause more harm than good?
Let's be clear. CSR departments and people have made a world of difference in shifting the way business does business, in understanding how to incorporate social and environmental principles from corporate strategy to operations. Employees, suppliers and community stakeholders are better for it. Innovation is being fostered by collectively shifting business toward the triple bottom line. Indeed, it is uplifting to know that companies work toward their own version of Interface's "Mission Zero" where a business aims to "Do no harm. Take nothing," as once famously said by the company's founder, the late Ray Anderson.
Do no harm means integrating sustainability into daily company operations. Doing so demands that a cleaner alternative to the status quo needs to be introduced. New technology and change in human behaviour can drive innovation in the workplace, and it can be both successful and sustained if it makes business sense. A conflict arises when short-term profitability is competing with sustainability initiatives. Since the two are understood as separate tracks, money-in-hand often wins at the expense of long-term cost through environmental externalities. A recent survey by GlobeScan and SustainAbility revealed that 88% of over 600 experts polled note that short-term financial results are a barrier to the corporate sustainability agenda.
Another poll reveals a positive trend: according to a recent survey of environmental strategy and performance executives and thought leaders, "CFOs are emerging as key players in sustainability, and, surprisingly, employees are too: they are second only to customers as drivers of company sustainability initiatives." CFOs link financial viability with environmental initiatives, while employees can help integrate innovation in the workplace - a positive trend, indeed. That being said, as long as "environmental initiatives" are communicated and approached as such - as separate initiatives - integration will remain challenged. The economy or the environment is a false proposition. Similarly, having CSR or sustainability-work "housed" in its own department or position helps perpetuate the silo effect, and therefore the notion that economy and environment compete. The economy is a subset of the environment, not the other way around.
If the aim is to move beyond CSR as a communication and strategy tool, and to actually embed environmental performance, it must be done with the lens of business sustainability. After all, business' job is to be business and that shouldn't change. What can and should transform is how we define business success: financial sustainability while doing no harm, and taking nothing from the environment.
 Grist: A green giant passes: Ray Anderson, sustainable-biz pioneer, dies at 77. http://grist.org/sustainable-business/2011-08-08-ray-anderson-sustainable-business-pioneer-interface-dies/
 Environmental Leader: Poll: Financial Short-Termism Hitting Sustainability Drive. http://www.environmentalleader.com/2012/01/30/poll-financial-short-termism-hitting-sustainability-drive/
GreenBiz Group and Ernst & Young: Six Growing Trends In Corporate Sustainability. http://www.greenbiz.com/research/report/2012/03/01/six-growing-trends-corporate-sustainability
Image: Sustainability Venn Diagram, By Sustainability Hub (via Wikimedia Commons)