The importance of environmental policies and sustainable practices in business has seen the emergence of a role that is still misunderstood and ill-defined in the corporate world; that of the Chief Sustainability Officer. The emergence and growing prevalence of this C-level position amongst big business is reflective of the pressures, both internal and external, to integrate incorporate sustainability and environmental policy at a strategic level.
Corporate social responsibility and the role of the CSO in developing and managing it, is too often boiled down to one of compliance; expedient to an ever growing burden of national and international legislation around emissions, environmental practices and targets. But this belief is misguided. Far from being driven merely by compliance, the need for effective CSR policy is increasingly driven by commercial expediency, profitability and brand image.
In this article I want to explore the four pillars of corporate social responsibility and dispel the myth that this crucial element of corporate strategy is merely about box ticking.
Compliance is an inevitability in the global marketplace, once your business gets to a certain size, let’s make no mistake about that. The need for good compliance processes will have become a necessity long before the idea of developing CSR policy has been mooted (let alone before you appoint your first CSO). It’s also likely that any approach to compliance will start off decentralised and fairly haphazard in nature.
Creating a more strategic and joined up approach to compliance reporting, is one of the first steps in developing an emerging corporate social responsibility policy. It’s at this stage that you will begin to look at the non-financial data your company creates on a daily basis and how it fits together. We refer to this as data topology and it’s crucial to map when laying the foundations of your CSR policy.
Data is what drives this process and it’s the first job of any CSR policy to utilise the appropriate tools to gather this data, establish its accuracy and relevance and then analyse it. This is the point at which CSR goes beyond developing easier reporting methods for compliance reasons, into the realm of improving supply chain management and streamlining operational processes.
Once you have begun to accurately map the data your organisation collects, you can look at ways of reducing energy or raw material usage, cutting down on waste and ultimately carbon emissions. Corporate social responsibility is very much focused on short to medium term efficiency initiatives at this point, with a view to cost saving. It’s at this stage that many companies will look to appoint a CSO who can begin to work with the CEO at incorporating CSR at a more strategic corporate level.
Bringing individual efficiency initiatives and cost saving programmes into a more cohesive strategy is the point at which you can really start innovating at a company wide level with CSR. The data collection and analysis process and systems you have in place offer the CSO, in conjunction with the CEO, to begin leveraging CSR into your core business model. In many ways, this is less about centralisation and more about the CSO becoming more autonomous form the CEO and in turn delegating responsibility downwards to the relative business units. It also becomes the role of the CSO to change company culture and practices and to manage that change through senior and middle management.
CSR becomes more fundamentally tied to the overall business model at this point and marketing and branding are no exception, which takes us onto our last pillar.
Storytelling and Brand Image
Corporate social responsibility is not and should not be an exclusively internal process driven by business needs and requirements. With innovation comes the need to communicate CSR policy to customers, stakeholders, employees and partners. In some sense, this pillar is an extension of the innovation stage in that it seeks to tie CSR more fundamentally to corporate strategy and planning. More specifically though it seeks to do this by shaping (and redefining if necessary) brand image using CSR to create compelling brand stories.
Getting from the raw data that drives CSR to a relatable and engaging brand story isn’t always straightforward and involves looking at the bigger picture. The CSO must manage this process by joining CSR up with PR and marketing. The marketing department will then be empowered to establish a brand strategy that gives real world examples and connects with customers to position your company as a market leader in its corporate social responsibility.
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