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Ditch the Standards – Sustainable Companies Should be Unique, Consultants Say

Companies shouldn’t necessarily meet sustainability standards but should devise their own “unique ethical proposition,” according to Rasmus Bech Hansen of brand consultancy Venturethree and Jens Martin Skibsted of design agency Skibsted Ideation.

Writing for Fast Company’s Co.Design website, Skibsted (above left) and Hansen say too many businesses find themselves trapped in a rigid, standardized form of sustainability – what the pair call a “me-too” model of responsibility.

They argue that international standards such as the ISO 26000 standard for CSR can’t help companies build a competitive advantage, because they dictate what a business – and all its competitors – should do.

To make CSR more meaningful, Skibsted and Hansen say companies should embrace their unique ethical proposition, just as great brands have developed unique selling propositions. This doesn’t just mean greening the brand or protecting the company’s reputation – efforts that are backfiring more and more as consumers accuse companies of green-washing. Instead, businesses must use their brands and their competitive advantages to tackle major environmental projects, not as a peripheral concern but as part of their core business.

Skibsted and Hansen say an example of this process is Vestas’s WindMade, a program to designate products manufactured with wind power.

But this initiative poses its own practical and ethical dilemmas, as pointed out by David Dornfeld of U.C. Berkeley. Already about 350 different environmental labels are confusing customers. And the WindMade label demonstrates only one aspect of a product’s sustainability. A more comprehensive label would indicate a limited expenditure of resources (including materials, energy and water) and perhaps even demonstrate a positive social impact.

In other examples offered by Hansen and Skibsted, GE’s UEP involves developing energy-saving projects, Novo Nordisk’s translates to fighting diabetes and obesity, and that of tech firm Intuit means providing free information to improve farming productivity.

A rigid notion of sustainability is not the only drawback to blind compliance with voluntary standards. In February, the ISO said that rogue certification firms were “awarding” the 26000 standard – even though, by definition, the standard is not certifiable.

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9 thoughts on “Ditch the Standards – Sustainable Companies Should be Unique, Consultants Say

  1. I agree with the sentiment that each org has their uniqueness and individual journey that is THEIR story alone. But i think that through a reporting mechanism, in the case of health care, the Practice Greenhealth Environmental Excellence Awards, a standardized approach around the data, enables giving it BACK to the community with sector benchmarks,a report out on emerging areas of focus, opportunities and demonstrated win win successes, like cost savings. So yes, creativity, uniquness, telling one’s own story, YES – but sharing data, sharing that story and giving it back to the community is a gift to all of them – those leading the back, those just getting started and all others somewhere in between.

  2. Agree – Any initiative should be market based, not regulatory or standards based. Those companies that survive do so because they think forward.

  3. I am neither for nor am I against what the authors propose. But I will note a few flaws in their arguments:

    1) Many firms, and the people who work there, lack the knowledge needed to design their own unique approach to sustainability. And being busy with their own business, many/most do not have the time needed to learn what would be required. Companies like that probably want to use the international standards as a convenient ‘shortcut’ to at least perticipate in the sustainability movement. It may be an imperfect fit, but at least it offers a fast start.

    2) The argument that “the ISO 26000 standard for CSR can’t help companies build a competitive advantage”; is irrelevant. ISO 26000 was never designed to help companies gain a competitive advantage in the first place. This is like arguing that safety standards for consumer products are bad because they don’t promote broader market share for individual companies who are subject to them – that was never the point.

    3) The authors acknowledge that “There are of course minimum standards that all companies should adhere to”. But history is replete with examples of companies failing to adhere to minimum standards of all sorts, which is why regulations are needed in the first place. In the competition of the marketplace, initiatives that are not central to the company goal of making a profit are all too often lost by the wayside. That’s an inherent weakness of relying on a free marketplace to achieve any sort of societal goal – such things are usually cast aside as irrelevant to the day-to-day focus on competition and profitability.

    4) “Skibsted and Hansen say companies should embrace their unique ethical proposition”. But again, many companies do not even have an ethical position. They exist to make a buck – period. Nothing wrong with that, but don’t hold your breath waiting for such entities to suddenly become socially conscious.

    On the plus side, it is generally true that one size doesn’t fit all. But far more thought needs to be given to the implications of arguing for an abandonment of international standards in favor of a free market approach.

  4. I disagree that standards should be set aside. Without standards, how is a client or consumer to evaluate the value of the work. For example, without the official “fair trade” label, consumers can only guess at what “ethical” or “natural” or “fair” claims the company makes. This breeds skepticism and contributes to the perception of greenwashing and half-hearted attempts at sustainability.

    Companies need to realize that sustainability is about their longterm profitability more than anything else. Maintaining and strengthening their brand and keeping and building loyalty among their customers and employees. A standard identifies their level of commitment and does it on a level playing field.

  5. I agree in principle with your proposition that each company has to find its own way to embrace sustainability in a way that fits with the organisation’s ethics and priorities.

    However, for those companies that choose green power consumption as one of their priorities, a label like WindMade provides the opportunity to have their efforts independently certified and to communicate their commitment to customers in a transparent and efficient way.

    Of course, green power usage is only one area of sustainability, and WindMade does not claim to cover any more than just that. But a company’s electricity demand can represent a key part of its overall environmental impact, so switching to renewable energy can indeed make a big difference. A WindMade certification will then provide companies with the necessary credibility.

    I would also like to point out that while Vestas has indeed been instrumental in driving the initiative, WindMade’s support goes far beyond the wind industry, with other founding partners including WWF, the UN Global Compact, Bloomberg and the LEGO Group.

    Angelika Pullen, WindMade

  6. At this early stage of incorporating an ecological dimension into the economy, we will discover that some aspects of eco-sustainability need to be unique. I think where the standards become important is when corporations recognize their influence on degrading/improving natural capital outside their direct ownership. For land managers to respond to a market signal, it will be necessary for that market signal to be organized and coherent.

  7. This articles verges on the absurd. Would the author recommend “Ditch the Ten Commandments because they are for everybody – Do it your unique way!” ? Companies should be unique in their service strategies, product philosopy, etc. When it comes to Ethics we are all the same. Ethics unites us.

  8. A very straightforward tale of what CSR means to the mainstream of modern corporations – pure PR. It is always a pity to observe when a company decides to spent money to ‘explain’ how unique is their brand advanced and how advanced is their concept and achievement in the area of CSR rather than channelling these funds to meaningful projects to elaborate governance, environmental and social performance…

  9. How can you argue that ISO26000 does not leave room for individual or unique branding – The guideline is so broad that it allows allmost any solutions as long as they are based on stakeholder dialogue and respect for a few commonly agreed principles such as human rights and ILO core conventions

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