Triple Pundit almost always brings a smile to my face, and for that reason is one of my favorite blogs by far. The group blog highlights the three "p's" of sustainable business -- people, planet, and profits -- and highlights a steady stream of optimism-inducing stories about both creative startups and long-established corporations doing well by doing good.
Pardon me for talking about IBM yet again, but the company continues to impress me with its ability to ride the green wave with intelligent and high-potential offerings. The latest example is last week's announcement of a new Sustainable Procurement consulting offer.
Tom Schueneman of the indispensable TriplePundit blog on corporate social responsibility has a great review today of AT&T's holistic approach to sustainability. The lede is the phone giant's new $500 million commitment to put 15,000 alternative fuel vehicles on the road in the next decade. It's a great example of how big companies can aim to do good and do well at the same time. The program should save the company money in the long run while winning useful public plaudits, and, as important, make a real impact in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, provide clean energy jobs, and support the expansion of the alternative fuel infrastructure.
The clean car initiative represents a big splash in sustainability, but it also reflects a much broader and more comprehensive approach at AT&T. Schueneman's interview with Beth Shiroshi, AT&T's assistant vice president for Citizenship and Corporate Responsibility, tells the larger story, and it provides some useful lessons for any company looking to strengthen its sustainability approach:
Business software giant SAP launched an online collaboration site last week to promote dialogue with stakeholders on a range of social, economic, and environmental concerns. The site sits on SAP's new collaboration workspace platform, which enables registered users to post content, communicate with SAP officials and each other, and set up public and private workspaces.
To get the dialogue going, SAP's vice president of corporate citizenship, James Farrar, has launched a new blog, a stakeholder survey, and, most important, the company's first global report on sustainability.
It's a great idea, and it plays directly to the mission-oriented marketing I wrote about with IBM recently. As noted by Sustainable Life Media, it follows similar efforts by companies including Cadbury and IKEA Canada.
SAP has a good story to tell on sustainability, and the report does a nice job of telling it. Befitting the company's role as a leading software provider, the report has a dual focus, covering both SAP's internal responsibilities to operate in a sound, ethical, and environmentally responsible manner, and external opportunities and obligations to provide solutions that help clients operate in a similar fashion.
With my purchase, the company commits to planting several trees as part of its Campaign to Reforest America, in partnership with the National Forest Foundation. It's a good cause, and pretty easy and relatively inexpensive to do. Lots of companies do similar things; the rest probably should.
But the execution is actually what made me pause: A nice separate email (in addition to my purchase confirmation), a simple vote so I could pick which of three national forests to support, and links to additional information about the campaign, the partnership, the specific forests, and the issues at stake. It was nothing earth-shattering, but a good reminder that a few extra touches can go a long way toward making your customers feel better about you.
Supporting the environment is good; doing it with engaging and educational content is even better.
Many discussions about the business value of corporate social responsibility and "going green" highlight benefits such as brand distinction, customer loyalty, and employee morale -- and, increasingly, potential cost savings. A new white paper from Deloitte adds deal value in mergers and acquisitions to the list.
According to the authors, "companies that have strong corporate responsibility and sustainability (CR&S) programs in place are likely to be rewarded for their efforts. Those that don’t have such programs can expect to face increasing regulatory and marketplace demands for change."
The trend is driven by increasingly tight environmental regulations as well as broader trends toward greater transparency and accountability around potential social and financial risk. Energy companies are obviously front and center here, but the trend affects many industries, according to Deloitte, including manufacturing, transportation, and retail.
Looking ahead, the Deloitte authors provide several useful suggestions for executives looking to buy or sell:
Sam Palmisano, IBM's CEO, went to the Council on Foreign Relations this morning to lay out an ambitious program of technology-driven social change and economic recovery. IBM's "Smarter Planet" initiative is a seriously big idea; in Palmisano's words, it's about "infusing intelligence into the way the world literally works—the systems and processes that enable physical goods to be developed, manufactured, bought and sold… services to be delivered… everything from people and money to oil, water and electrons to move… and billions of people to work and live."
Practically speaking, this means investing heavily in technology-based systems and processes to address fundamental global challenges such as energy waste, transportation gridlock, supply chain inefficiency, water shortages, antiquated health care systems, and, perhaps most urgent right now, unmonitored and out of control financial markets.
The initiative is of course self-serving. The more governments invest in technology-based solutions, the more industry leaders like IBM stand to gain. But self-serving doesn't mean it's wrong. In fact, I'd like to suggest that this is actually the best kind of marketing, and the kind that we need to be emphasizing right now:
My main point here is not to praise IBM, although obviously I do think the effort is praiseworthy. IBM is far from a perfect company and other firms are doing similarly valuable work in these areas. Rather, it's to raise the question about how we go to market in this difficult time.
Most of the marketers I talk to these days are shortening their time horizons, shifting resources (to the extent they still have them) toward lead generation, and doing whatever possible to accelerate immediate sales. This is understandable, and yet...
We've just completed a remarkable election in the US in which a majority of Americans chose a candidate who stared calmly at enormous problems facing our country and the world and said now is the time to think big, to set our sights high, and to be the change. Self-serving? Of course. But it also excited and inspired and mobilized millions of people previously too cynical or disengaged to actually believe that getting involved could make a difference.
Marketing candidates is clearly different than marketing business services and solutions. But exciting and inspiring cynical and disengaged people is actually a pretty good description of the challenge we business marketers are facing right now too.
Palmisano summed it up nicely this morning: "Over the next couple of years, there will be winners, and there will be losers. And though it may not be easy to see now, I believe we will see new leaders emerge who win not by surviving the storm, but by changing the game."
Forty of the Fortune 50 companies now showcase reports on their sustainability performance, but many focus more on promoting their green credentials than on providing real accountability to the public, according to a new study by the PR measurement firm KDPaine & Partners. You can download the full report here (PDF).
The good news is that most of the largest companies have begun to take seriously the need to report on their own environmental impact, and most of them present information on their environmental goals and policies, energy consumption, waste disposal and recycling, and air emissions. Most also highlight the environmental awards they have won. The numbers are up significantly from even a few years ago.
On the other hand, far fewer of the companies provide real context for their reporting to help readers understand how well the companies are actually doing, and only a minority involve third party stakeholders in the reporting process, which would tend to add credibility to their efforts. As the study authors noted, "environmental sustainability reporting is still being used as a public relations tool to position companies favorably on environmental issues, rather than to hold companies accountable to stakeholders for environmental performance."
For those interested in improving their own environmental reporting, the report provides a useful Environmental Reporting Transparency Scorecard which outlines a wide array of factors used in ranking the Fortune 50. (Many more useful resources are available from the Global Reporting Initiative, the leading international network for corporate sustainability reporting.)
A proven track record is one of the first things that business buyers look at when considering potential providers of high value services and solutions. Where have you done this before? Hence the importance of providing credible references, case studies, and testimonials.
All well and good, but how do you get those first clients before you even have a track record? At IBM, one of the most effective answers has been to use yourself. The IT giant's new Green Sigma consulting offer is a great example.
Like many IT services providers, IBM is preaching the virtues of green computing, and now wants to help clients reduce both costs and environmental impact by applying Lean Six Sigma principals to energy and water usage throughout their operations. It's a timely offer, and made credible at least in part by IBM's internal track record saving energy and cutting costs through the approach -- some $310 million in energy costs saved since 1990 with a corresponding reduction of more than three million metric tons of CO2, according to company calculations.
In a world of skeptical buyers, practicing what you preach is table stakes. Practicing it first to work out the kinks, and then beginning to preach (with all the appropriate Web 2.0, conversational approaches, of course), is the better way to go.