“It’s a matter of making it relevant,” said Derek Smith, corporate sustainability manager for catalog retailer and green-business leader Norm Thompson, which has committed to total elimination of polyvinyl chloride and transition to organic cotton in all products by 2006. And he conceded, “We haven’t figured it out.”
To companies trying to transcend conventional internal and external business models, communicating progress appears as dicey as achieving it. Every Natural Step program implemented and LEED standard achieved offers a chance to highlight efforts to stakeholders and customers, and each environmentally friendly product sold presents a forum to tout the prospects of taking a new direction. As environmentalist and author Sharon Beder wrote last year in The Ecologist, “Reputation is more important than ever to sales, shareholder value and attracting employees. And corporate responsibility is an increasingly vital element of reputation.”
But it’s also a slippery slope. If, as is often the case, a key goal is to establish as broad a reach as possible, a company must appeal to drivers of hybrids and SUVs (small ones, at least). The same holds true for dialogue with stakeholders, who, despite popular belief, vary widely. And then there are advocacy groups and non-governmental organizations, constituencies both eager for new corporate policies and skeptical of them.
“Business is constantly subjected to the pressures to ratchet up our performance, whether it’s economic performance from shareholders or environmental performance from NGOs,” Weyerhaeuser president Steve Rogel told New York Stock Exchange magazine this year.
To be sure, it’s a stickier dilemma for renowned, publicly owned companies. A mid-sized, privately held company, Norm Thompson isn’t a target of scrutiny by advocates or NGOs. Nor is Coastwide Laboratories, a Wilsonville, Ore., company expanding a line of commercial green-cleaning products.
“It’s probably a reason a company like ours has the greatest potential to drive change,” said chief chemist Roger McFadden. By the end of 2003, he said he expects green-cleaning agents to comprise 80 percent of its business. “Big companies have so much more at stake.”
But while they have more at stake, corporate giants also seemingly have most to gain. Thanks to economies of scale, CSR advocates agree, large companies have the greatest potential to save through efficiency programs.
“If you turn off one monitor at night, you won’t notice much,” noted Marsha Willard, partner with Axis Performance Advisors in Portland. “If you turn off 1,000, you’re going to see a smaller electric bill.”
“Likewise, brand leaders stand to profit most from products and services that reach an ecologically minded customer group that appears to be growing fast,” said Russell Barton, of Ekos International in Mercer Island, Wash. “If it’s more than tangential, it will create a competitive advantage,” he said.
Does it ultimately matter if the advantage is an impetus or a perk? Western Europeans have surfed the green wave farther than Americans — and they’re no socialists, either.
“I don’t think were ever really going to make a transition as an industrial society unless we provide a better way of meeting our own core self-interests,” Barton said.
But whether token or true, if history is any guide, green-business efforts are also sure to rankle some advocates. Organic cotton and recycled shoes are becoming synonymous with the Oregon swoosh, for instance, but Greenpeace has called on Nike to expand its earth-friendly lines. Starbucks has upped inventory of Fair Trade certified beans, but Global Exchange wants to Seattle-based specialty coffee leader to sell more.
“It’s a structural problem in our economy that there’s a tension between human rights and profits,” said Deborah James, who manages economic rights and fair trade for the San Francisco-based human rights group. “You don’t solve global problems with individual consumer choices. Corporations are the leading actors.”
Starbucks and Nike representatives say ethics and the environment remain cornerstones in the corporations’ mission statements. Nike declined comment, citing a pending U.S. Supreme Court ruling. But Sue Mecklenburg, Starbucks vice president of business practices, said CSR “is tied to our long-term intent.”
“We’ve been accused of not telling people enough about it,” she said. “We don’t use it as a marketing tool.”
Whether a company should or shouldn’t is the million-dollar question. As the prophetic Uncle Ben told nephew Peter Parker (aka Spider Man), “With great power comes great responsibility.”
But criticism also remains a paradox of success. Sometimes, even companies that respond end up singing the blues.