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Thursday, 9 February 2012

Be the Change – But first Be Yourself


By Dr Wayne Visser

Part of the Quest for CSR 2.0 Blog Series for CSR Wire

What do we know about the role of individuals as CSR change agents? Intuitively, we resonate with adages such as Gandhi's 'be the change you want to see in the world,' or Margaret Mead's famous quote: 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever does.' But beyond these clich├ęs, what do we really know about change in the context of CSR?

As part of my PhD research, I interviewed a range of CSR professionals – managers, consultants, academics and NGO representatives working on corporate social, environmental and ethical issues. As expected, I found that the desire to create change recurs as a consistent theme.
But the way in which CSR professionals make change happen, and the satisfaction they derive as a result, differs considerably.

Change Motivators

For some, as one might guess, values play an important role. In particular, corporate responsibility is seen as a way to align work with personal values. For example, one manager I interviewed says: 'It's the inner drive, it's the way I am put together, my value system, my belief system … it's my Christian belief, my ethical approach.' Another explains that it is important to have 'inspirational leadership and people who align with your value sets.'

For many CSR professionals, motivation comes from the fact that sustainability and responsibility are dynamic, complex and challenging concepts. 'The satisfaction is huge,” says one corporate responsibility manager, 'because there is no day that is the same when you get into your office. It's always changing, it's always different.' Another reflects that corporate responsibility 'painted a much bigger picture' and is 'just as holistic as you want it to be. It requires a far broader vision.'

These two factors – values alignment and the CSR concept – are fairly crosscutting motivators. However, it is also possible to distinguish four fairly distinctive types of CSR professionals, based on how they derive satisfaction from their work.

In practice, every individual draws on all four types, but the centre of gravity rests with one, representing the mode of operating in which that individual feels most comfortable, fulfilled or satisfied.
Four Types of CSR Change Agents

1. The Expert

Experts find their motivation though engaging with projects or systems, giving expert input, focusing on technical excellence, seeking uniqueness through specialisation, and pride in problem solving abilities.

To illustrate, one such CSR professional explains: 'There were a couple of projects that I did find very exciting … It was very exciting to get all the bits and pieces in place, then commission them and see them starting to work.' Another Expert says: 'I usually get that sense of meaning in work when I've finished a product, say like an Environmental Report and you see, geez I've really put in a lot and here it is. Or you have had a series of community consultations and you now have the results.'

2. The Facilitator

Common themes among Facilitators are the derivation of motivation from transferring knowledge and skills, focusing on people development, creating opportunities for staff, changing the attitudes or perceptions of individuals, and paying attention to team building.

For example, one such CSR professional says: 'If you enjoy working with people, this is a sort of functional role that you have direct interaction, you can see people being empowered, having increased knowledge, and you can see what that eventually leads to.' Another Facilitator explains: 'The part of my work that I've enjoyed most is training, where I get the opportunity to work with a group of people – to interact with people at a very personal level. You can see how things start to get clear for them, in terms of understanding issues and how that applies to what they do.'

3. The Catalyst

For Catalysts, motivation is associated with initiating change, giving strategic direction, influencing leadership, tracking organisational performance, and having a big picture perspective.

One such CSR professional claims: 'The type of work that I'm doing is … giving direction in terms of where the company is going. So it can become almost a life purpose to try and steer the company in a direction that you believe personally is right as well.' Another says: 'I like getting things changed. My time is spent trying to influence people. The real interesting thing is to try and get managing directors, plant managers, business leaders, and sales guys to think differently and to change what they do.'

4. The Activist

For Activists, motivation comes from being aware of broader social and environmental issues, feeling part of the community, making a contribution to poverty eradication, fighting for a just cause, and leaving a legacy of improved conditions in society.

One CSR professional says: 'It's also about the issue of being poor. It actually touches you. You see these people have been living in appalling conditions, the shacks, the drinking water is so dirty, or there's no running water at all, you see those kind of things, it hits you, and you think: What can you do?' Another confesses: 'I think my purpose here is to help others in some way and leave a legacy for my kids to follow. I could leave a legacy behind where I actually set up a school or a campus for disadvantaged people, taking street kids out and doing something, building homes for single parents.'

Going Beyond the Business Case for CSR

One of the underlying messages of my CSR change agency research is that companies stand to gain a lot by going beyond the business case for CSR, by justifying sustainability and responsibility efforts on the basis of values – or by appealing to the deep satisfaction that working on CSR issues can inspire.
Taking this position – in addition to, rather than instead of, the business case – will enable companies to tap into a powerful source of motivation, namely the meaning that CSR professionals (and in all likelihood many other employees) derive from the alignment of values with work.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Changing the World, One Leader at a Time

By Wayne Visser

Part of the Quest for CSR 2.0 Blog Series for CSR Wire

We face a crisis of leadership. Our global challenges loom large and clear, but we seem to lack leaders who can make change happen at a scale and speed that match the size and urgency of the problems we face. In an attempt to understand this leadership impasse, I’ve done some research with the University of Cambridge’s Programme for Sustainability Leadership on how change happens. In this blog, I’ll briefly outline some of our conclusions.
Let’s start with what kind of change we’re talking about. Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, observes that companies that went from being 'good to great' did not rely on revolutions, dramatic change programs or wrenching restructurings. 'Rather, the process resembled relentlessly pushing a giant flywheel in one direction, turn upon turn, building momentum until a point of breakthrough, and beyond.'

A tipping point on sustainability?

So we're talking about catalyzing and scaling up change. And for this change to be successful, leaders need to foster and entrench new values, culture, incentives, rules and resources. InAccenture and the UN Global Compact’s 2010 survey, 54 percent of CEOs felt that a cultural tipping point on sustainability is only a decade away—and 80 percent believe it will occur within 15 years, so perhaps we are nearing a moment of infectious change. Meanwhile, at the organizational level, leaders must catalyze change for sustainability through a suite of actions, including innovation, empowerment, accountability, closed-loop practices and collaboration.
We found that effective sustainability leaders are good at promoting creativity in business models, technology, products and services that address social and environmental challenges. Sustainability leaders also implement structures and processes for good governance, transparency and stakeholder engagement.

A culture of discipline

Accountability does not have to be all about structures and controls however. Collins believes great leaders foster a culture of discipline, saying "When you have disciplined people, you don't need hierarchy. When you have disciplined thought, you don't need bureaucracy. When you have disciplined action, you don't need excessive controls." According to Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of G.E., "Enron and 9/11 marked the end of an era of individual freedom and the beginning of personal responsibility. You lead today by building teams and placing others first. It's not about you."
The best sustainability leaders adopt principles of cradle-to-cradle production, internalizing externalities and extending these principles to the supply chain. Sustainability leaders also build formal cross-sector partnerships, as well as innovative and inclusive collaborative processes such as social networking (Web 2.0). Betty Sue Flowers, co-author of Presence, poses the challenge as a question, saying, "We know a lot about heroic action because that’s in the past of leadership. But how do you have leadership in groups across boundaries, multi-nationally?"

Achieving sustainability through storytelling

At the people level, leaders catalyze change for sustainability by providing a compelling vision, encouraging long term thinking, making strategic investments and promoting intergenerational equity. Immelt says "every leader needs to clearly explain the top three things the organization is working on. If you can't, then you're not leading well."
Ray Anderson, the late CEO of Interface, saw this as a process of inclusion, saying, "For Interface, sustainability is broader than before: sustainability reaches out to embrace people, processes, products, place, the planet and profits—we now know that none can long be afforded allegiance at the expense of the others."
Sustainability leaders have to deep knowledge and skills and provide opportunities and resources for appropriate action. This embraces Robert Greenleaf's notion of servant leadership. He explains that "It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The best test is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?"
Transformational sustainability leaders also focus on creating a culture and structure that provides peer support and encouragement and recognizes achievement. Immelt says, "Today, it’s employment at will. Nobody's here who doesn't want to be here. So it's critical to understand people, to always be fair, and to want the best in them."
In the end, I believe the best leaders are effective storytellers. And they realize that we need a new collective story. As I wrote in Beyond Reasonable Greed, "each time the world changes – when civilizations rise and fall, when new scientific theories challenge our understanding of the universe, when technological innovation reinvents our lifestyle, when political revolution breaks down the old structures of society, or when a global crisis threatens to destroy our planet – humanity is forced to let go of some of its most cherished beliefs in order to create a new mythology to guide its collective psyche."

Small actions lead to big changes

We are at just such a fulcrum of change, and the beliefs we need to challenge and modify are many. Maybe it is our belief in the beneficence of the "invisible hand" of the market.  Or our belief that a global political deal is all we need to solve the climate crisis. Or that that business has the power to act unilaterally in bringing about a more sustainable and responsible future.
If my experience of living through the political changes in South Africa has taught me anything, it is that change is systemic. It happens because of millions of small actions by millions of people all over the world, some coordinated, some diffuse. Yes, change also happens because of bold leadership, but it always needs an enabling environment, a society or an organization that is ready to change.
Change is something organic. It is worth remembering that the largest living thing in the world is a honey mushroom in Oregon – an interconnected fungus measuring 3.5 miles across. It is said to be 2,400 years old and takes up 2,200 acres (1,665 football fields), with the small mushrooms visible above ground representing only a tiny proportion of its real girth and substance. I think change is something like that too: spread out, interconnected, growing where the ground is most fertile ground and often invisible.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Sustainable by Design? Lessons in Circularity from Seventh Generation


By Wayne Visser

No. 10 in the Quest for CSR 2.0 Blog Series for CSR Wire 

The CSR 2.0 principle of circularity has roots in life cycle assessment, cleaner production, sustainable consumption and cradle to cradle concepts. In The Age of Responsibility, I explore various well-known multinational examples, from Interface’s carpets and Nike’s Considered Design shoes to Coca-Cola’s water neutral initiative and Tesco’s carbon neutral programme. But there are also smaller, more nimble companies, like Seventh Generation, that are able to go much further, much faster. What can we learn from these companies that are intentionally sustainable ‘by design’?

Seventh Generation, an American household cleaning products business started more than 20 years ago by Jeffrey Hollender, took inspiration for its name and philosophy from the Iroquois Confederacy (a council of Native American Indian tribes), which included the admonition that ‘in our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.’ From the beginning, this meant thinking in a circular way about the impact of their products.

To begin with, this meant swimming upstream. “When Seventh Generation told executives at the old Fort Howard Paper Company that we wanted to market bathroom tissue made from unbleached recycled fibre, they laughed,” recalls Hollender. Despite such early resistance, however, Seventh Generation has remained steadfast in its commitment to ‘becoming the world's most trusted brand of authentic, safe, and environmentally-responsible products for a healthy home.’ And indeed, now has an impressive catalogue of cradle to cradle designed products, and has been doing extremely well, showing strong growth even through the recession.

However, ensuring that Seventh Generation lives up to their promise of authenticity is something that requires constant vigilance. For example, in March 2008, the company was ‘exposed’ by the Organic Consumers Association for having detectable levels of the contaminate 1,4-dioxane in their dish liquid. In fact, Seventh Generation’s product was declared the safest of those available and they had been working with suppliers for more than five years to remove it. They have since eliminated the contaminant completely, but as Hollender later declared: “Our effort was simply not good enough. Our real mistake was to exclude consumers and key stakeholders from our ongoing dialogue about dioxane. In short, we flunked the transparency test.”

Of course, the very foundation of transparency is information and the most basic kind is a full list of product ingredients, which, unbelievably, is not required by US law for household products. Consequently, Seventh Generation launched a Show What’s Inside initiative, which included an educational website and an online Label Reading Guide, downloadable directly to shoppers’ cell phones, which helped them interpret labels at the point of purchase, especially any associated risks.

As Hollender and Bill Breen report in their book, The Responsibility Revolution, not long after, SC Johnson launched a cloned version called What’s Inside. “That’s just what we had hoped for,” declared Hollender and Breen. “When a $7.5 billion giant like SC Johnson puts its brawn behind ingredient disclosure, it’s likely that the rest of the industry will follow, regardless of what the regulators do.”
Despite its green image, Seventh Generation knows that it needs to create virtuous cycles in its social as well as its environmental impacts.

As a result, in 2009, the company joined Women's Action to Gain Economic Security (WAGES) – an organisation committed to building worker-owned, cooperatively-structured, eco-friendly, residential cleaning businesses in San Francisco – to launch Home Green Home, WAGES' fourth worker-owned cooperative. This unique social enterprise serves the city of San Francisco and is creating healthy, dignified jobs for women in an industry known for long hours and low pay. The women who own and work in the business earn wages that average 50 percent more than their non-coop counterparts, and receive health care and paid vacation benefits. In the future, Seventh Generation and WAGES hope to expand the innovative practice beyond San Francisco. 

Hollender is under no illusions about how far we collectively still have to go. In his Foreword to The Age of Responsibility, he confesses that: “Corporate responsibility in its present incarnation has been an enormous disappointment at best. It has not lifted people out of poverty. It has not protected the environment. It has not boosted community wellbeing. It has been too little, too late and at most has succeeded in getting some companies to aspire to simply do less damage than they did before. Instead of changing the world, corporate responsibility merely evolved into a baseline requirement in every company’s license to operate. Where it succeeded, it only managed to slow the rate of decay, which is hardly enough to do much more than maintain the status quo.”

And yet, he remains optimistic. “Though much has changed in the last 25 years, one thing hasn’t: Business is still the only force with the reach and resources to do what needs to be done as quickly and efficiently as possible. The hour may be late and the clock loudly ticking but the story of responsible business is not over yet. There’s still room for a happy ending. And the time has come for us to write it for ourselves.”

It is examples like these and many others that show that the principle of circularity is not wishful thinking, but a practical strategy for achieving sustainability and responsibility, economically, socially and environmentally. And together with the other principles of CSR 2.0 or Transformative CSR – creativity, scalability, responsiveness and glocality (touched on in the previous blogs) – these inspiring innovations and bold actions are ushering in the new Age of Responsibility and with it, a new kind of ‘susponsible’ capitalism.

Without a doubt, however, achieving this vision requires change on a scale and urgency that has seldom been witnessed in human history. So the question remains, how do we make change happen? I’ll examine the myriad answers to this in my forthcoming blogs, recommencing in January.