Businesses are increasingly being judged within wider social frameworks and one of the most obvious ways to do this is via sustainability initiatives. Today, indexes, awards, and damning reports are popping up left, right and centre, whilst this year’s World Brand Congress is using “sustainability brands” as its overall theme. In the first of a two-part series on sustainability, Kathryn Cave looks at the Global 100, “cause India”… and what all this sustainability stuff really means.
Edward O. Wilson, the American biologist, researcher and author famously defined the great challenge of the twenty-first century as: “to raise people everywhere to a decent standard of living while preserving as much of the rest of life as possible.” This statement more or less holds the nub of sustainability - a word that is used and abused randomly - and increasingly hijacked to showcase a whole variety of very different things.
More often than not sustainability is the vehicle through which people talk about the environment, generally and the generation of electricity specifically. Yet as one of the great buzz words of the modern age it can also, equally suggest organisations’ levels of involvement in wider social causes, their treatment of staff, and how a company interacts with its customer base in the long-term. All this makes sustainability extremely hard to pin-point… and even more difficult to measure.
The Global 100 is an annual project, run by Corporate Knights Inc. since 2005 and aims to do precisely that. Based on a data driven survey of 350 companies this seeks to identify an elite group of the top 100 large-cap companies in the world. The methodology for evaluating sustainability or "clean capitalism", as it is also known, is to analyse whether “a corporation’s long-term interests are intellectually and financially consistent with resource efficiency, proactive health and safety practices, and responsible leadership.”
Toby Heaps, editor-in-chief of Corporate Knights, stresses sustainability is when what is good for a company is also good for the planet, and vice-versa. “It means creating more wealth than we destroy. It means that a company is on balance increasing our overall stock of wealth, grounded in human, produced, financial, natural, and social capital.” Surprisingly enough, the full findings can even be accessed on an excel spreadsheet, complete with ratings against each criteria… this is not the usual slick PR presentation and actually suggests greater integrity.
The top three tech companies listed on the index are Intel (14), Cisco (20) – a company that incidentally ties with Google in the latest Greenpeace ranking of IT sector climate leadership and Alcatel-Lucent (28). The top two performing countries are the US and Canada (with 10 representative companies from each). Although the top three positions went to companies from: Belgium (Umicore SA), Brazil (Natura Cosmeticos SA) and Norway (Statoil ASA).
No Indian companies were included in the ranking, but India itself does have an extremely interesting attitude to sustainability. This year’s World Brand Congress which will be held in Mumbai at the end of October and takes “sustainable brands” as its core theme. Sustainability (in the wider sense) always generates a lot of attention in India. A fact which is underpinned by Cause Marketing, a local trend where consumers are happiest to bond with brands that integrate Sales and Marketing strategies with social causes.
Interestingly, the Havas Prosumer Report 2012 shows that 83% of Indians would like to be part of a truly important cause compared to 45% from the UK and 61% from the US. Vikas Puthran, Vice-President-Alliances and Operations GiveIndia, explains this is because: “In India we see ‘in your face reality of the under privileged’ on a day-to-day basis. The young generation who have had the privilege of an education and, as a result, a decent livelihood, and want to make a contribution and give back to society. Since the beneficiaries are available in their local community or near about, the social impact they can make is visible for them to see and feel. So they have first-hand feedback of their return on social investment contributed either in money or resources.”
This can also be seen in a wider interest in social causes from some companies. There are so many (much publicised) companies that abuse society, that those that do have a conscience put a great deal of effort into it. Puthran offers the example of the ‘Aditya Birla Group’ (ABG) which puts its “excellent sustainability vision, execution and programs” at the centre of its various business groups:
“For ABG, sustainability is about working in the communities that they operate. They run programs to sustain the environment, livelihoods of people who are directly employed with them or generate indirect revenue to partners and employees of ABG. [This includes] providing education to underprivileged kids in their communities so that their families become sustainable and probably be a source of human resources.”
Another Indian corporate that’s a role model for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Sustainability, Puthran tells me is the TATA Group. “Apart from the many CSR programs, the Tata Group has, Tata Index for Sustainable Human Development, a pioneering effort aimed at directing, measuring and enhancing the community work that Tata enterprises undertake. The Index provides guidelines for Tata companies looking to fulfil their social responsibilities.”
In the IT sector however, the overwhelming tendency is to concentrate on environmental issues. This is natural because the industry as a whole is so dependent on power and datacentres. However, when Interbrand released its Global Green Brands report in June this year, 12 brands came from the IT industry and helped to reveal some broader, and often overlooked, truths. The report stressed that across every sector, those organisations which were successful were those committed to transparency and clear communication with consumers. Because of this, market leading tech firms have the potential to take a real global leadership stance in environmental issues and can often spread a wider influence into other areas.
Today, IT has the potential to lead the way across every areas of sustainability. It can help reduce energy consumption through more efficient datacentre designs. It can help cut company waste through better managed processes. It can even help the disenfranchised poor by giving access to education, health and communication. In the modern age, sustainability is far more than simply power and electricity… and technology can help provide the necessary building blocks to facilitate global improvement across the board.
Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect
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