The ‘Noble Distractions’ of CSR, Part I: Transparency
In the environmental space, the practice of corporate social responsibility (CSR) is on an evolutionary arc, predominantly propelled by external forces: pulled by the lure of competitive benefits evidenced by leading practitioners (Stonyfield, Seventh Generation, Patagonia, etc., etc.); and pushed by watchdog, consumer, shareholder, and public expectations. More often than not the desire for CSR is not generated internally (that is, Authentically) – it is a reaction to a modern condition or event.
For the vast majority of businesses, CSR has become a noble distraction away from the business of business. The concept of CSR embodies the lofty promise to help increase profitability, improve brand loyalty, strengthen market position, and engage social / environmental concerns. In practice, however, it often appears as a patchwork of disassociated environmental programs or (heaven forbid!) marketing initiatives with righteous intentions beyond the corporate walls.
But these noble distractions have a price.
That price manifests as internal conflict, gaps and missed opportunities, inconsistencies and contradictions to the core business, and confusion over priorities. At worst, it has the perverse impact of decreasing profitability, degrading brand loyalty, and eroding market position. Even for some leading practitioners, CSR initiatives tend to be bolt-on activities, which do little to advance the company’s core strategy, and/or fall short of their potential to move the needle on the targeted environmental concerns. Strategically (as opposed to operationally), these initiatives tend to share a common set of tools.
Transparency, for example, is often a strategy used to authenticate the environmental sustainability of a company. More frequently than not, however, it is either a risk mitigation strategy or selective translucency. When we deconstruct many moments of corporate transparency, it appears as a flinch – a protective stance.
Forced transparency, I think we can agree, is almost always bad for business. If a watchdog group, a government, publication or a citizen uprising forces you to be transparent, you have already lost. Any trust your branding program, advertising, coupon and/or actual actions might have earned is depleted to varying degrees based on the offence.
QSRweb.com, a publication for the fast food industry introduced an article about how Taco Bell was dealing with its latest “meat authenticity” issue with this headline: “Taco Bell fights back with Transparency.” Under the rubric of authenticity, however, if you are forced to be transparent, it’s too late. The damage is done, and you must now use corporate resources to rebuild the trust, marketshare, value, etc. These resources could undoubtedly be put to better use.
Here’s the other way to “do transparency.”
From a manufacturer of outdoor gear describing their backpack:
“…the Chacabucco Pack embodies no environmental innovation. The nylon is virgin, its polyurethane coating is solvent-rather than water-based, and like all of our products and rainwear, it has DWR (durable water repellant) surface water-repellent that involves the use of PFOA [perfluorooctanoic acid]. The pack is not recyclable.”
“No environmental innovation,” “not recyclable.” It’s hard to believe the language above is coming from a company that cares about the planet. But in fact it is copy used to sell a product produced by one of the most environmentally progressive companies on the planet – Patagonia. It’s almost daring “real” Patagonia fans to buy it anyway. And this is why it works. The moment created by this authentic transparency (an acknowledgment of environmental impact contrary to its image) puts the corporation and the consumer on the same informational plane – they share a knowledge that makes them equals.
Proactive and radical transparency, like that demonstrated on Patagonia’s Footprint Chronicles, a website that displays Patagonia products’ footprints from design to delivery, establishes a powerful corporate operational paradigm. In some sense it tends to disarm any watchdog distraction, allowing Patagonia to focus its business on its business. But it does not come off as risk mitigation (even if it is). It feels authentic – they openly admit the pack was created to fit a price point in the market that makes them a more competitive company.
This is the place where the corporate strategy of environmental transparency overlaps with consumer marketing in an authentic way. The selective transparency referenced in Sustainability Reports inaccessible to the majority of stakeholders. Extending the boundaries of these reports is an opportunity, not a threat. Patagonia uses this moment of transparency to introduce us to the people of their supply chain, and allows them to tell us their stories. The framing ultimately creates a space for the company to share stories from within their supply chain, created by their supply chain in an authentic voice. From these stories, we learn more about the complexity of “footprint” than we bargained for. Openness creates opportunity.
This moment would not be possible without authentic transparency. Businesses cannot show the positive human impact of their business without exposing the environmental footprint along the way. While there is marketing opportunity created by the authenticity (to move the dialogue forward), the expression serves as a corporate lubricant and internal guide for departments from product design to human resources and logistics.
It’s true that advertising is the price you pay for not being creative. It is also true that it is the price you pay for inauthentic transparency. The resources required to maintain the veneer of authenticity are greater than the resources required to bring corporate alignment to bear using authenticity strategies. (And, yes, it is odd to talk about strategic authenticity. But we are so far off course that we need it as a guide.)
Mostly, the veneer of bad CSR is neither malicious nor intentional. It exists in the exuberance to do better (by doing good) and in blind spots created by the excitement of doing something good.
It is a good thing. But it is bad strategy – a noble distraction.
Next week: Noble Distraction Part II: Third Party Certifications.
John Rooks is the founder of The SOAP Group and the author of More Than Promote –A Monkeywrencher’s Guide to Authentic Marketing.
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