Andrea Learned

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Sustainability Leadership Takeaways for 2013: The Social Lens


Nothing is new about the fact that business leaders must evolve with changing demands. By also prioritizing sustainability integration, those usual demands and responsibilities grow exponentially. So, we shouldn’t be surprised that some business leaders have jumped in feet first to practice empathy, grow their communication skills, and think long term, while others (most?) have responded by digging in their heels. Why bother evolving when you will so soon retire, after all?

But, the smartest corporations have not only been the bravest in facing sustainability challenges, they’ve also been the earliest to use social media to further amplify the positive change in that work. Add the social lens to the leadership of 2013, and you’ll get the best results in 2014.

Herewith, this year’s takeaways:

1. Take first mover advantage.

The first companies in any industry to truly commit to sustainability will win. It follows that the first to use social media well, in both B2B and B2C worlds, will also gain the advantage. Further potential in that “win” lies in being first to get an executive or two engaged with social media to start to build more personal social capital, which can reflect so very well on the overall brand. Earlier this year, Greenbiz published a helpful ranking of engagement by corporate sustainability leaders on Twitter. Note the variety of corporations represented and whether the Tweeters are at “leader,” “learner,” or “lurker” levels. Executives like eBay’s @fiercefern, Campbell’s Soup Company’s @DaveStangis, Dell’s @Bruno68 and MillerCoors’ @kimmarotta are among the early adopters who now have the advantage of participation in existing conversations and lead time in building trust.

2. Study how women lead.

Studies (like this one from BSR) have told us that sustainability leadership demands a different set of strengths. Those include being more relational, or having a lot of practice with empathy, communications and collaboration – to name a few. It is no surprise that those same strengths shine all the more brightly over social media. @peggyatkc of Kimberly Clark and @kateheiny of Target are two examples of women in sustainability leadership who reflect that. The more we study how women lead, the more the business culture will start emphasizing and rewarding an updated list of leadership traits – which anyone, male or female, can build upon.

3. Let stakeholders do the storytelling.

Don’t toot your (brand’s) horn. Instead, build the relationships, provide the quality product or service, and support the stories that your employees, customers and other stakeholders will then tell for you. This has long been a guiding rule of marketing, but social media can now give stakeholder storytelling a rocket boost. B2C brands may be the best at it, for now (for example, Zady, FEED, Warby Parker, as discussed at the November Yale/Interbrand Sustainability Marketing Summit), but there is huge potential for doing the same in the B2B realm (See this great post from MLT Creative on the topic).  Your customers’ own words give a Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn discussion of your brand much more weight than any old announcement or seal of approval the company might itself have push out.

4. Pay it forward (to next generation leaders).

Today’s wisest leaders wander the factory floor, have lunch with employees in the cafeteria and figure out methods of staying in touch with their stakeholders (especially employees!) on a regular basis. They are also intentional about participating in the events that organizations like NetImpact host, in order to be a regular resource for the next generation of sustainability leaders. (Many of the first mover types mentioned in my first point can be seen doing just this.) A Storify of their 2013 conference is itself evidence of how social media allows cross-nurturing relationships to form and develop.

5. Open (way) up to partnerships.

Sustainability focus leads to innovative, counter-intuitive cross-sector and cross-industry partnerships. And, these sorts of “strange bedfellow” collaborations raise the bar on the bigger issues, providing something to collectively work toward, but still allowing plenty of room for differentiation. Consider Patagonia, Walmart and the creation of the Textile Exchange , or check out the founding members of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (includes Unilever, Dow Chemical, and Starbucks). While neither organization quite uses social media to its fullest, the potential is  great.  As it is, the more each organization’s members themselves share news of their progress by way of social channels, the more other companies will be inspired to sign on and be inclined to partner up for a greater sustainability good.

2013 was definitely an exciting year of  sustainable business strides, but I predict 2014 will be the year that social media gets used more widely to amplify the benefits of the work – for business and society. What’s your perspective?

Special thanks to dctennis for use of this “Lens” photo.