As Sustainability and CSR Gain Traction, Questions Linger

As CSR and sustainability have shifted from the margins to the mainstream in recent years, they’ve become even more complex and controversial topics. At Gibbs & Soell’s Sense and Sustainability Summit on Tuesday in New York, CSR advisors and media specialists tackled some of the key issues.

Even the terminology and scope of these areas was up for discussion. The panelists favored a more holistic definition not limited to environmental and philanthropic initiatives. Laura Gitman, managing director at BSR (Business for Social Responsibility), noted that traditional metrics are no longer enough and that ESG (environmental, social and governance) indicators should be used. Bryan Walsh, senior editor at TIME magazine, observed, “It’s strange to label sustainability as though it’s a separate part of business.” Diane Brady, senior editor at Bloomberg Businessweek, said she equates sustainability with long-term profitability. Below are other key takeaways.

Skepticism still runs deep. As Gibbs & Soell’s recent sustainability survey showed, consumer and business cynicism regarding CSR is still high. This is warranted, according to Gitman, who separates companies into two camps. Some corporations have fully integrated CSR into their business models. However, many companies only use CSR for short-term and PR purposes. She thinks the recession caused a shakeout, leaving only those who are truly committed to continue investing in CSR.

Sustainability has gone more mainstream. “In the past only a small group of corporate investors insisted on corporate transparency,” Gitman said. “But now we’re starting to see more mainstream investors pay attention.” Brady added, “The robber barons and corporate raiders of the 1980s are now uncovering CSR stories,” citing the recent Yahoo CEO backlash.

Gitman also noted CSR now being more widely embraced by companies of all sizes. “It started with midsize and smaller companies appealing to niche audiences. Larger companies have followed suit, though that involves a systems change and a need to customize sustainability to their core business.”

Stakeholder engagement needs to be carefully mapped out. “Stakeholders are talking about you anyway, so it’s better to have a chance to influence those conversations,” Gitman advised. “Many companies just use a checklist approach. Instead, they should do shareholder mapping to identify and strategically address their most important groups.”

Beware the depths of the supply chain. Among the hottest topics in recent months have been stories about what’s lurking in companies’ supply chains, particularly among manufacturers or electronics companies. Gitman explained that it’s critical to know where all your raw materials are sourced to ensure there are no hidden political controversies.

Media’s green rankings are evolving. “Newsweek’s green rankings provide third party verification, which is useful for shining a spotlight on these issues for consumers and businesses,” according to Ian Yarrett, assistant editor. “Last year we added a disclosure score that rated the level of transparency, specifically how well companies communicate their key numbers.”

CEOs should be front and center. Brady noted, “I’m always amazed that CEOs are not out there more talking about these issues. Instead I’m usually in contact with corporate sustainability officers.” She added that CEOs writing for their own corporate blogs isn’t what she had in mind.