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Corporate social responsibility: Following through on sustainable business initiatives

Sustainability has become a buzzword since sustainability as a practice is a relatively new initiative. From corporate social responsibility, to ‘green’ workplaces, to unethical ‘greenwashing’, it seems as though everyone is trying to get a piece of the eco-friendly pie. In the business world, sustainability is referred to as the ‘triple bottom line’, as organizations consider the environment an important stakeholder. In business schools, grads are taught to acknowledge people, and the planet in addition to profits, in their business models. “TripleP” as it it sometimes referred to, is gaining momentum. Multinational corporations and small businesses alike have introduced ‘green’ audits, and environmental reporting in order to become more transparent in their quest to prove to consumers that they are making efforts to be more sustainable. Following through on these sustainable initiatives however, is a different story. When it comes to sustainability, the norm used to be basic compliance. Today, organizations are looking at sustainability as a competitive advantage.

There are companies who are picking the ‘low hanging fruit’ and then there are companies who have completely integrated sustainability from the top down into their operations and mission. In other words, some organizations have started recycling more, printing less paper or changing to eco-friendly lightbulbs. Other organizations have made it their mission to produce less waste in every aspect. Coca-Cola for example, despite producing 11 billion cans and bottles every year, plans to become a zero-waste organization. Proponents of the sustainability movement argue that it all starts with people. For a business, this means the human resources department. Let’s take a look at how a few organizations empowered their employees to live sustainably, and increased their profits as a result.

1. Educate employees and encourage day-to-day sustainable operations

Diagnosing the current state of sustainability in the workplace is the first step. Are employees doing anything currently to improve the sustainability of day-to-day operations? Are light bulbs energy-efficient? Is electronic equipment energy-efficient? What are the environmental costs of business travel? These minor decisions can provide huge savings for a company. These adjustments are referred to as the low-hanging fruit of sustainability. Canadian outdoor gear company Mountain Equipment Co-op does not supply parking spots to their employees, encouraging them to use public transit or bicycles to get to work. Over the past years, the company has used over 90 percent recycled materials to build new stores, and incorporated existing materials into their sustainable solutions. These initiatives have significantly reduced capital costs, and increased profits. In other words, sustainable initiatives integrated into human resource development can dramatically affect the triple bottom line.

2. Maintain top-level involvement

Embedding a sustainable framework into company culture should be a comprehensive, company-wide mission. Too often top executives fail to lead, and the diffusion of sustainability deteriorates. Specific, attainable and relevant goals are crucial. According to the Economist, six out of ten executives globally said their team had been given no specific sustainability goals, after sustainability initiatives were ‘set’. Without a sustainability leader, goals may not be accomplished or even considered. Royal Bank of Canada employs Sustainable Business managers and directors who actively manage sustainable initiatives through the company, in order to remain accountable and proactive.

3. Guarantee transparency

Transparency is essential when it comes to sustainability. Since many companies are accused of ‘greenwashing’ (deceptively promoting products or services that are ‘green’ to promote the perception that a firm is environmentally friendly), providing accountability reports and making corporate social initiatives available to the public are essential. Take Puma, global provider of sportswear, for example. In 2011 the company released an environmental profit & loss report, in which they disclosed the effects the company had made on the environment for the year prior. This notion has revolutionized the way companies measure sustainability in an accounting framework. It also holds each and every employee accountable for their actions (or lack thereof). Puma’s report places a monetary value on their environmental impacts, where ‘profit’ are activities that benefit the environment, and ‘losses’ are those that harm it. These reports have helped employees, stakeholders and consumers better understand their impacts and how to manage them.

When it comes to sustainable business environments, the general feeling is that sustainability means higher costs. In reality, incorporating sustainable actions can create a competitive advantage for the company. Long-term solutions and cost-cutting measures mean greater, more sustainable profits. There are many companies out there that are encouraging their employees to live sustainably, not only at work but in their personal lives. Sustainable business still remains a work in progress, but embedding the approach into company culture, involving top management and remaining transparent are the necessary first steps.

About the author:

Meghan Tooley is a commerce student and active online blogger from Winnipeg, Manitoba. She often offers her views on sustainability surrounding human resource development, as it relates to industry trends. She writes on behalf of Metric Marketing, a Winnipeg marketing agency. For more information about workplace sustainability initiatives, human resource development and Canadian recruitment agencies, visit People First HR Services

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In addition to our regular guest bloggers, Inside Internal Controls blog published by First Reference, provides occasional guest post opportunities from various subject matter experts on the topics of risk management and best practices in finance and accounting, information technology, environmental issues, corporate governance, sales/marketing and operations, not-for-profits and business related issues in Canada. If you are a subject matter expert and would like to become an occasional blogger, please contact Yosie Saint-Cyr at editor@firstreference.com. If you liked this post and would like to subscribe to Inside Internal Controls blog click here.
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