As Ray Anderson, founder of Interface (the world’s leading producer of modular floor coverings) tells the story, he had no idea what sustainability meant to him or his company in 1994. When questions started trickling in from customers about the environmental impact of their products, he turned the other way, not out of malice, but out of ignorance. Green was like Greek to him. And the questions felt like an unnecessary distraction. But then something happened: Members of his workforce raised their hands and said that they wanted to form a voluntary employee task force to address the questions. Anderson could have said, “No way, not a good use of our resources or time,” but thankfully he didn’t. His employee task force uncovered findings that led Interface to re-tool its business model to become a paragon of sustainable manufacturing. The task force found unique solutions through biomimicry, life cycle sustainability assessments, and increased use of recycled materials, diverting more than 100K tons of carpet from landfills. Since then, Interface has grown into a billion-dollar corporation, named by Fortune as one of the “Most Admired Companies in America” and the “100 Best Companies to Work For,” while redefining an entire industry.
For me, this story should be told in boardrooms for years to come. It’s a cautionary tale for any company that looks the other way when customers and employees raise questions about the social and environmental impacts of their business. Today, this can result in loss of customer loyalty, disengaged employees, and missed market opportunities. It also presents a profound opportunity for any company to tap into the passion of employees to explore social and environmental issues important to customers.
AngelPoints—provider of a web-based employee engagement platform for corporate volunteering, giving, and sustainability programs—recently conducted a survey of 100 companies. The survey found that 90 percent of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program leaders could not articulate a clear strategy for their programs. Subsequently, we met with our top customers and uncovered five core strategies we recommend all companies adopt to successfully become more sustainable and responsible global citizens:
1) Empower Your People. Almost every company has an employee volunteer program, and engaging your top volunteers is the natural place to start because they already enjoy giving their time to social and environmental issues. Ask your volunteer program leaders to develop task forces to explore the issues. Show them the Ray Anderson TED video and tell them you want these task forces to uncover the one to three biggest social and environmental concerns that your customers have.
2) Set a North Star. Ask your volunteer program leaders to create a three-year plan that mobilizes your entire workforce to solve the problems presented by the task forces. Every company-sponsored volunteer activity should support your program’s goals. Consider not only traditional goals, but also leadership development and impact goals. For example, Accenture’s corporate citizenship initiative, Skills to Succeed, is about educating people around the world—with a goal of equipping 250,000 people by 2015 with the skills to get a job or build a business.
3) Include Everyone. It’s important to not only inform but also inspire employees. Focus on the “why,” and share stories that are simple and clear. Give leaders these stories to tell, and publish internally. Create an internal communications calendar for the year. Make site visits to educate teams on the CSR goals. Include CSR questions on employee surveys. And, for employees who have to be onsite, bring volunteer opportunities, such as electronics and clothing drives, to them during work hours.
4) Measure and Report Performance. Ask your program leaders to share program Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) monthly or quarterly. Along with quantitative measures, establish a feedback forum and share survey results and stories from beneficiaries. Establish real-time reporting on your internal website through a CSR dashboard.
5) Celebrate Success. Small rewards, acknowledgments, and team competitions go a long way to encouraging all employees to participate in your CSR programs. Recognition could be through social media virtual awards, annual board meeting mentions, dollars for doers funds, volunteer leadership opportunities, “voluntourism” trips, or tying CSR success to performance reviews and compensation.
Whether it’s your investors pumping over $3 trillion into companies screened for responsibility (UN Global Compact), 71 percent of your customers who will take their money elsewhere if you don’t tell a credible CSR story (Edelman Good Purpose Survey 2010), or 65 percent of your employees who will seriously consider moving their desks to the competition if they don’t believe that you care (Do Well Public Opinion Survey 2010), it’s time for every company to join the journey towards greater corporate responsibility.