First, a word about sustainability. For a field that’s arguably less than 30 years old, there’s no shortage of terminology to describe the work that we do. Sustainability. Corporate Social Responsibility. Citizenship. As the field develops and CSR teams go through re-orgs, we might rechristen our titles, but I still don’t think we’ve landed. If you come up with a better name, I’m all ears! I don’t plan to devote much time to the semantics, but I’ll offer a brief view of how I think about this space, so that my frame of reference is clear. I define sustainability as business for good. And when I say for good, I mean it in the Target “here for good” sense. That is, business for the good of the community and also business for the long haul. I’ll use the terms sustainability, CSR, and corporate citizenship interchangeably, but you know what I mean.
Sustainability has progressed from first generation environmental health and safety, compliance-focused risk mitigation activities. We’re now in the second generation, with opportunity-focused reputation enhancements featuring cause marketing initiatives like Product (RED), stand-alone CSR reports, and early stage employee engagement (think local “green teams” to promote recycling). Now it’s time to usher in the next generation.
What will Sustainability 3G look like? I think it will be marked by a shift to integrated financial and citizenship reporting, sharper metrics that define outcomes (rather than just outputs), and a transition from ownership-dominant business models to access-dominant models (more on that in a later post). And when will we see it?
We’re already starting to. The recession is helping to separate the wheat from the chaff, and I think the sustainability programs that emerge either whole or larger than before will be the ones that have succeeded in making the business case for their existence, in connecting values to value. As it should be.