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Better Together: Corporate Responsibility Grows Up

Success, together


Originally published in CSRWire, December 21, 2012.

You don’t have to be an octogenarian, especially in the ever-evolving business world, to sit back in amazement and think “Wow, how things have changed.”

In even the past few years, we’ve gone from seeing a majority of corporations embedded in an opaque and competitive culture to a focus on transparency and the rise of social responsibility as a competitive advantage.

The next step? Getting better together.

It is all the more striking and powerful when the strangest of competitive bedfellows work toward the same goal. PepsiCo and Coca Cola, for example, are both members of the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable, which is working on hammering out a set of protocols for industry-wide enterprise inventory and product carbon footprinting approaches.

And, though not (yet) exactly working together outside of the Roundtable, both brand are heavily involved in their own water stewardship initiatives. They’re also becoming more transparent with their commitments to environmental and social responsibility and taking responsibility for stewardship of one of the resources that has long been an external and unaccounted for cost of doing business.

Essentially, by working together, they are becoming better, more responsible corporations by addressing an industry-wide issue, in their case, water.

Still, it’s not only the things that need fixing that “working better together” can help address more effectively. New ways of partnering also lead to the innovative thinking that needs to emerge for today’s biggest corporate challenges. A 2006 Harvard Business Review article by Michael E. Porter and Mark R. Kramer highlighted the link between corporate social responsibility and competitive advantage in succinct terms:

“The fact is, the prevailing approaches to CSR are so fragmented and so disconnected from business and strategy as to obscure many of the greatest opportunities for companies to benefit society. If, instead, corporations were to analyze their prospects for social responsibility using the same frameworks that guide their core business choices, they would discover that CSR can be much more than a cost, a constraint, or a charitable deed—it can be a source of opportunity, innovation, and competitive advantage.”

If you missed that article (and wisdom), it’s not too late.

As we’ve seen in the example of the beverage industry water, focus as well as industry collaborations like the Textile Exchange, work best together. Now, and in partnerships with NGOs – and increasingly each other – corporations can play a part in building platforms for movements. That’s why the

Patagonia and eBay Common Threads Initiative, a partnership born of a common interest and focused on getting consumers to join in, works. The not-so-secret sauce in promoting those movements is social media, a tool that is only now becoming fully realized for its ability to scale brand and movement messages.

As the below selection of stanzas (in no particular order) from the thought-provoking BrainsOnFire manifesto illuminates, corporations will have a lot more power working together at movement scale than they ever did working at campaign scale. Here’s some food for thought:

Campaigns have a beginning and an end.
 Movements go on as long as kindred spirits are involved.

Where “bike to work” day has long been a common campaign, what we see happening in Copenhagen, New York City, Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon reflect a movement that keeps building momentum

Campaigns rely on traditional mediums. 
Movements rely on word of mouth, where people are the medium.

When we consider the incredible movements in recent history, it has been social media – where people are the medium (and not television, radio or print) – that has made the difference. Remember the Bank of America credit card revolt and Occupy Wall Street?

Campaigns are “you vs. us.”
Movements are “let’s do this together.”

Rather than “our brand is greener than its competitors,” corporations are realizing the systemic and powerful impact of joining hands to raise the bar on green altogether. Hence, the need for organizations like the Sustainability Consortium, which has been started to provide a platform for such partnering.

Now apply those concepts to your look at the near future of CSR and you get this: we can get better – and more sustainable, amplified and collaborative – together.

Such thinking may seem a aspirational and driven by charity, but there is real, measurable merit in the argument. Because it is time to go beyond campaign work. Corporations are learning that shared values and passion for driving change, whether social or environmental, means stepping back from branding themselves and instead sharing ownership for the sake of a much larger goal. Being better together, finally, results in significantly greater impact than even the largest corporations in the world could achieve alone. Its why or and work well together.

“Better together” sounds risky and different from the ways business has always been conducted.  But given the scale of environmental and social problems corporations could help solve, the return on that risk – for people, planet and profits – is incalculable.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Creative Commons, Clear Path International (Flickr)