The Story behind the Suitability Strategy (and Brand) Sustainability Certifications.
I love them and I hate them.
I love them for all the great good they have done and do pioneering and commercializing corporate sustainability.
I hate them, because too many companies use them as if a sustainability strategy they make.
Ok, maybe hate is too harsh a word. But if you look at them, in reality all they are is list of things to do and/or measure. Lists and measures are important, but without strategy they remain nothing more than the sum of their individual parts.
Moreover and more importantly, because any company can check a list there is little to no competitive advantage to many certifications (unless there is a public ranking/score, which most CSR certifications unfortunately don’t have). As a result, getting certified is what companies have to do just to stay even with the competition.
Certifications are simply the commoditization of an information regime. Following ISO 2600, doing a GRI report, carbon or water foot printing or the ESR of CEMEFI in Mexico are all great things to do; but ultimately, collecting certifications should not be confounded with strategy.
Certifications: necessary? Perhaps. Sufficient: No!
While it is true certifications provide great fodder for strategy and can even motivate action, they rarely inspire, as great strategy can and should. So, like giving to the local orphanage – also a great thing to do — form filling is rarely leads to value, return and impact maximization. And the sum of any list rarely… ok, I will say it: NEVER, I repeat, NEVER, maximizes returns to a company.
Let me explain with an example. We recently did an diagnostic of an agricultural machine manufacturer. It had two lines of tractors. One complex and computer filled. The other, a simple machine, one loved for decades by low income farmers and cooperatives as trusty, easy to maintain, and inexpensive to run.
The company recently started to employ leading-edge designs to this beloved little tractor. Better fuel efficiency, more precise turning, greater pulling power, amongst other attractive benefits. From a market position, all this is simply necessary to stay relevant in the highly competitive and growing global small tractor market. But it was also a sustainability value adding story waiting to be told.
This little tractor helped make farm family and rural community life better. How? Less fuel and maintenance costs and greater crop productivity = more household income leading to happier, healthy farm families, generating greater local economic and social multipliers, leading to more opportunity and more vibrant communities and less out migration. More precise plowing and turning = less soil and moisture loss for a lower environment impact, more productive crops, less work leading again to more household income etc. You get the virtuous circle thing….
But how does this story make strategy?
Well in addition, to the opportunity to develop and sell the little tractor story, it can motivate a sustainably culture which was clearly lacking at the company.
Product design engineers told me that they wanted to help their neighbors and clients to a better life. Design would be inspired, and instead of just building a great tractor, engineers would be building better farm family and communities! Marketing managers would be selling not just a tractor but a tractor that conserved nature for their kids, grandkids and generations to come. The company would have a powerful story to tell government — almost always mixed up in the rural farm implement markets — giving it a measure of “CSR insurance” in case something bad happens, and heaven forbid, a possible edge in selling to government programs.
It is not hard to imagine sustainability investments that could add to the story…. Small teams could comb the country side offering tractor maintenance, fuel efficiency and operating tips to farmers (and not just clients). Impacts could be easily measured, estimating fuel saving, environmental impacts, and related household incomes improvements. These results could be woven into the “little sustainable tractor” brand, bringing income and developing value easily justifying the very modest cost of such a program.
Telling it Simple
Story-telling makes the complex simple: simple to communicate and understand (and what can be more complex that the concept of sustainability). Stories inspire purpose far beyond just going to work– an invaluable means to attract employees who are increasingly looking for more than just a pay check (i.e., they too want a part in a bigger story). Told right, stories also give natural strategic direction, so clear it kind of drives itself right into value enhancing CSR Brand….. “Making Farm Life Better. “
And this is something a check list of things to do and measure simply cannot do alone.
(Do you know your sustainability story? Let me know if your company is interested know its CSR story/strategy. ES Global can help).