3 principles for weaving sustainability into communications

This article was originally published on Nov. 16

It’s a basic truth — we tend to see what’s right in front of us. We’re more likely to eat that chocolate chip cookie when it’s sitting on the counter rather than hidden in the pantry. Chances are slim that Human Resources will offer an interview if you never submit your resume. And you probably didn’t plan to spend $4.50 educating yourself about Brangelina’s divorce before you got bored in line at the grocery checkout.


So when companies launch an online sustainability report, why assume stakeholders will find it? Many reporters fall into this trap of the “one and done” approach. They post a link on the subpage of a subpage, send a press release, then wait until next year.

Instead, the most successful companies take a blended, more assertive approach, making it as easy as possible for stakeholders to learn about sustainability progress. A 2012 article on stakeholder perceptions from the California Management Review stated:

Executives who rely on the standalone sustainability report to communicate their message are unlikely to succeed in delivering that message to any mainstream audience. However, sustainability-related messages can be embedded in virtually any media. Those firms that have been able to create meaningful distinctions in their audience’s perceptions of sustainability are, in part, doing so through the use of media and tactics incremental to their formal reports.

In other words, sustainability leaders go “beyond reporting” by using more than traditional print and web mediums to communicate performance. The best follow three key principles: Be consistent; be repetitive; and be strategic.

1. Be consistent

When you commit to reporting your social, environmental, and governance performance, call it one thing. Labeling initiatives as “corporate responsibility” on your website while highlighting “citizenship” goals in a press release creates confusion. In the absence of formal reporting requirements, stakeholders (especially investors) seek clarity. Communicating with precision shows your audience that sustainability is a deliberate, well-defined and central component of your corporate identity.

Unilever is particularly adept at this. From the moment readers land on its corporate site, they see how Sustainable Living is embedded in the company’s vision. Upon clicking to secondary pages, they read about Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan and targets to improve environmental and social impact.

Later, they notice that the company’s Twitter bio describes making sustainable living commonplace. And after several interactions, Unilever successfully has solidified its position as a “sustainable brand.”

So how should you label your program? Do what makes sense for your business. If you’re consumer-facing, consider Unilever’s approach of designing a custom brand identity. For B2B companies, it may be more practical to select a standard term such as “corporate responsibility” and employ it across all communication channels.

According to a 2013 survey (PDF) by KMPG, nearly half of companies choose “sustainability.”

2. Be repetitive

Once you’ve polished your messaging, use it. Marketing professionals use “touch points,” or interactions between a business and its customers, to motivate purchasing decisions. Sustainability reporters can draw on this idea, connecting with stakeholders across multiple platforms and enabling them to associate your brand with ethics, responsibility and positive impact.

The tools for this are readily available, and someone in your company likely already uses them. Reporters can team up with corporate communications to embed sustainability across multiple mediums. These companies do it well:

  • General Motors shares content about its environmental, innovation and community initiatives on its corporate Twitter account
  • Reynolds American highlights sustainability directly on its home page and places “Transforming Tobacco” in the main navigation
  • Southwire uses one-page snapshots (PDF) of sustainability progress as a sales tool
  • Hewlett-Packard weaves sustainability-related blogs and press releases into its online newsroom
  • BASF places sustainability on the front page of its investor relations site along with a “Sustainable Investments” section including goals, material topics and KPIs

Be careful to be precise. Stakeholders easily become confused when companies include information in multiple places — such as philanthropy performance on both the About Us and Corporate Responsibility webpages. While messaging can occur across several platforms, formal disclosure should not.

The Global Reporting Initiative recommends that at least one medium (paper or electronic) provides users a full set of information about sustainability progress. Often, the best approach is to disclose performance in one central location — such as a sustainability website — then link to it from all other communication efforts.

3. Be strategic

As the boundary between sustainability and corporate reporting continues to blur, many companies are re-evaluating their approach. Should we be communicating more than once per year? What frameworks should we use? Isn’t sustainability strategy simply business strategy?

One thing is for certain: At its core, managing sustainability performance is no different from planning for the long-term financial success of your business. In coming years, the space between these concepts will continue to narrow.

According to Mike Kzrus, a senior advisor working with us at BrownFlynn, “The way reporters frame these issues leads to an evolution of the business approach where sustainability is included in high-level strategy.”

Take quarterly earnings calls. While these conversations typically focus on short-term profitability, companies can be proactive by integrating sustainability messages into performance updates. A 2013 Harvard Business School report, “A Tale of Two Stories,” calls this “turning two stories into one.”

The authors note that companies often tell one story in their sustainability report yet do not share the same narrative in investor communications. As long as companies fail to communicate consistently across these mediums, “the market will remain skeptical about the importance of sustainability.”

Companies with effective communications don’t separate sustainability and financial messages. They consider sustainability as central to their business, and reflect this in messaging that is consistent, repetitive and strategic. Curators at the Louvre don’t place the Mona Lisa in a storage vault and expect visitors to find it — they display it front and center in the gallery. So, place sustainability front and center. It’s that simple.

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So, I Understand B Corps, But What’s a Benefit Corp?

This article was originally published on Oct. 11

The names of B Corp and a Benefit Corp are commonly confused. Rightly so since there are many similarities. And, many businesses are both. For a quick side-by-side comparison, take a peek here. The biggest difference is that a B Corp becomes certified by B Lab when they score 80 or higher by taking the B Impact Assessment. Whereas a Benefit Corp is self-reported to determine performance and is only available for corporations in 30 U.S. states and D.C.

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So They Say They Don’t Have the Budget for a CSR Program…?

This article was originally published on Nov. 27


What should you do next… Give up? Fight for it?

Or, you can prove them wrong.


We all know that it’s good business to do good business. It’s been proven time and time again. Yet, when it comes to investing in corporate social responsibility, we’re still arguing its value and presenting the good old business case. While this might be a frustrating situation, having to prove the worth of something inherently invaluable is something you’re likely to come across at some point in your CSR career. So, how do you do it?

Determine Your Goal

There are many reasons that a CSR practitioner might need to make (or re-make) the business case for their programs. Understanding the why will help you frame your argument. Step one: figure out why you’re making the case for an increased budget. Is it to:

  • Build a new CSR strategy
  • Create a new program altogether
  • Advocate for a larger team
  • Head-off a new leader asking why the company invests in CSR
  • Supplement potential budget cuts
  • Fund a system that can manage CSR data

Start with the Big Picture

Anyone in this field is aware of the benefits that CSR programs offer a corporation. But sometimes, our leadership teams may need a reminder. CSR increases employee engagement, productivity, and retention. Happy and engaged employees produce better business results than those who aren’t engaged.

Social Responsibility also yields increased consumer support and a better company reputation. Both of those things affect the company bottom line positively. Linking CSR business goals and your company’s bigger picture helps executives understand the need based on what is important to them: making money!

Don’t worry, this isn’t a bad thing. After all, if your company didn’t make money, there wouldn’t be a CSR program to engage!

Think Data Might Help?

  • 55% of consumers are willing to pay more for a product from a socially responsible company.
  • 89% of consumers would switch brands to one that is associated with a good cause, given similar price and quality, compared with 66% in 1993.
  • 76% of employees consider a company’s social and environmental commitments when deciding where to work.
  • 83% would be more loyal to a company that helps them contribute to social and environmental issues (vs. 70% U.S. average).
  • Companies with an average of 9.3 engaged employees for every one actively disengaged employee experienced 147% higher EPS compared with their competition.
  • Companies that increased total giving by at least 10% between 2014 and 2016 saw increases in revenue and pre-tax profit, as opposed to all other companieswhich actually saw decreases in both metrics.

Speak the Language

Spend some time getting to know your executive team and the decision maker that oversees CSR. Understanding what is most important to this group will steer your presentation in a way they appreciate. Their primary concerns might be employee retention, reputation, risk mitigation, culture, or other areas. Knowing the overarching goal of this group will lead you to use the right support for your ask in CSR funding.

Go Hyper-Local

It’s great to understand how CSR affects the bigger picture, but your executives are probably wondering: what do our employees want? Be sure to survey your employees to understand what this key stakeholder group wants and needs from your company. Use that data and their thoughts as you speak to the executive team. There’s no denying the power of a collective voice. If the entire company is calling for support through a company match, for example, it would behoove you to mention that fact to the leadership team.

Do the Math

While we want to believe that making the business case is about intangible benefits, in most companies, that just isn’t the case. To really speak the executive team language, it’s important to do some homework beforehand and calculate the Internal Return on Investment of CSR for your company.

Estimated Turnover Savings

  1. [$XX,XXX] $/year
  2. x 131% benefit costs
  3. x # of employees
  4. x 38% turnover cost
  5. x 20% current turnover rate
  6. x 25% turnover rate reduction


Calculations Key

  1. Average employee salary.
  2. Employer costs for employee benefits according to statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2014).
  3. Your employee headcount according to HR.
  4. US Labor Bureau reports average turnover costs at 38% of the annual salary.
  5. Your turnover rate input according to HR.
  6. It is reasonable to expect up to 25% reduction in turnover rate.

Find and Leverage Internal Resources

In order to accomplish your original goals for your CSR program, get creative! Think of how you can partner with other departments to achieve the same end-goal without increasing costs as significantly. Need to get the word out about your giving campaign? Recruit marketing. Need to properly vet a potential nonprofit partner? Ask your financial experts to look at the 990. Need someone to help spread the word and increase participation across offices? Recruit CSR champions. For many CSR departments, resources are stretched thin. Finding innovative ways and looking for help internally can help reduce your overall ask and increase the likelihood it gets approved.

When your board says they don’t have the budget, don’t stress! Take a look at these tips, remember that you know exactly how to make the case for CSR, and educate your decision-makers about why more funding would be integral to engagement success within your company.

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