Is CSR Branding Becoming “Unsustainable”?

Broken_PromisesWe see the terms “brand” and “sustainability” mentioned together more often today than ever before.   Since brands usually function as the connection between business and people, their role has evolved beyond marketing to also represent corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts.   But when a corporation’s sustainability commitments become unfulfilled promises, or fail to engender broader support –  the future of a sustainable brand can ultimately become “unsustainable.”

Championing Change

The contributing factors are often complex and related, from new management and vision, to failed policies, tools and practice. Amongst the many reasons, there is one that is so essential that it practically hides in plain sight -and that is the lack of emotionally engaged employees.  Such employees are needed not only to support and implement such programs, but to also champion its purpose and possibilities.

Building a sustainability minded corporate culture requires voices beyond that of Executives, CSO, HR, Marketing and Corporate Communications.    Engagement and development opportunities should be made available to all employees, especially those who can impact the relationship between business, people and environment.  On-boarding and training programs should not only inform, but strive to inspire action and connect shared interests.


According to a study conducted by Ernst & Young and Green Biz Group on the “Six Growing Trends in Corporate Sustainability,”  employees have emerged as key stakeholders in driving the success (or  failure) of corporate sustainability programs.

“Conventional wisdom is that company sustainability initiatives are driven principally by customers or investors and shareholders, and sometimes by NGO activist groups or regulatory agencies.  But our survey found that employees are a key driver in a significant number of companies.”

In fact when participating executives were asked to rank the top three stakeholder groups responsible for driving their company’s sustainability initiatives, employees ranked second (cited by 22% of respondents), behind customers (37%) and ahead of shareholders (15%), policymakers (7%) and NGOs (7%).

Human Relevance

All too often when corporations introduce their sustainability story to others – they focus their communication efforts on  ”How” they are going to build and manage their sustainability commitments.  Great care is spent on explaining sustainability management tools, processes and  methodology for “How” their CSR progress will be reported.  Ironically, according to the breakdown of stakeholder groups in EY/Greenbiz’s  “Six Growing Trends in Corporate Sustainability,” such information would be of primary interest to those with minimal influence on sustainability programs and outcomes (shareholders, policymakers and NGOs) .

This is not to say that  customers and employees would not be interested in sustainability program progress and data. But such information is not enough to fuel broader internal interest – let alone engagement.

Why do corporations utilize formats and strategies for employee communication that they know are ineffective in connecting with people externally? Consider the ways corporate-wide change programs such as sustainability is introduced to employees today.


Downloadable manual of do’s and don’ts –  There is nothing inviting or engaging about rules and requirements.

One-way lecture / On-Demand Presentation – Push communication and mass distribution limits human connections. On-Demand may undermine importance of program.

Campaign – Sustainability must be understood as a commitment, not a trend or limited  initiative.

FYI or Optional  – Why would employees believe their support matters in a program that ignores or discounts their voice?

Standard Industry Practice  – Why launch a program that is half-hearted or like everyone else? Give employees reasons to believe in the vision of the program and the difference they can make.

Failure to connect sustainability to employee and customer interests limits the appeal and perceived relevance of such efforts.  Beyond understanding “What” and “How” sustainability efforts will be managed,  people also need to understand the  ”Why” behind a brand’s sustainability story.  How can employees be expected to promote sustainability if they themselves have yet to find reasons to believe in it.

The methods for promoting a sustainability minded culture needs serious consideration, investment and dedication.  Greater care and creativity is needed not only in the launch of such programs.  But equally in how employee interest is nurtured on both a group and individual human development level.  For example, when employees show interest, how is that interest being recognized and developed into active engagement? What programs are put in place to foster the growth and development of these potential ambassadors?  What special tools and training is needed to develop these individuals into becoming active voices and influential stewards of such changes?   Nurturing human development and emotional engagement is not an off-the-shelf, short-term or prescriptive process.

Corporations cannot assume they will have employee support for programs such as sustainability. Just because they launch it, doesn’t mean that the interest, enthusiasm and support will naturally follow.  Support and active engagement needs to be earned and inspired.  The success criteria for launching a sustainability program should strive to go beyond building employee awareness, adoption or even use of new tools and processes.  Successful employee engagement should go as far as to compel people to take action.

Compliance ≠ Engagement

There is a significant difference between enabling “compliance” and inspiring employees to become “champions” of such change.  Enabling compliance requires no emotional investment or shared belief.   It can be successfully implemented through the use of new tools, support of new processes, adopting new KPIs etc.   Teams can meet goals and objectives while feeling emotionally disconnected from the mission itself.  Moreover, compliance  implies a passive role in support of change, rather than an active role to steward and sustain it.  Employees who comply yet feel no connection or shared sense of purpose, are unlikely to inspire support from others.

Patagonia’s Rick Ridgeway

Patagonia’s Rick Ridgeway

When employees are inspired to become a voice for a cause or change they believe in, it is the shared sense of purpose  that inspires waves of progress, fuels new innovations, and promotes infectious excitement.   A corporation can express its commitment to sustainability in ways that extend far beyond words such as policy, product and business priorities.  Such expressions of a brand’s promises also gives people more reasons to believe in the authenticity of brand’s social responsibility commitment .

Companies that were founded with sustainability principles baked into the DNA such as Patagonia, benefit from having many voices harmoniously aligned and working to bring shared sustainability principles to life.   The brand’s commitment becomes self evident in their product vision, manufacturing and sourcing process, corporate culture, and customer service policies.    Their commitment to the environment becomes evident not because of  their marketing or branding.  Rather, it is because of the way they do business, and why they do what they do,  that builds their credibility as a sustainable brand.  

Corporations such as Starbucks, Unilever and GE  have succeeded in nurturing a successful sustainability minded-culture.  They are thriving examples of why the investment in developing employee emotional engagement produces lasting returns for building sustainability into business and brand.  When sustainability evolves in the minds of employees as being more than just a corporate program, but a shared and unifying purpose -the positive social and environmental contributions of brands will be self-sustaining.

This article was originally published on Social Voice

Special thanks to KayVeeInc. for use of their “No Thought Exists” photo

Thank you for you interest in this post.  As always, we hope you find it share-worthy with others.  We would love to hear your feedback, questions and shared wisdom.  If you have any examples related to the points discussed, please take a minute to share your comments below.  

Join me this October in Mumbai for my talk at the World Brand Congress and to continue this conversation (in person) regarding the building of brands and corporate culture.
Anneliza Humlen is the President and Founder of SocialVoice®.  She is a brand strategist, development leader, culture-change catalyst and writer. She has dedicated over 15 yrs to helping businesses create meaningful brands through humanizing communication, culture-building and mentorship development of brand ambassadors

One Response

  1. rebuildit

    Thanks for this great article and the conversation essentially will continue,
    ie it must not become ‘unsustainable’.

    The ‘theoretical’ rubber hits the road however
    when the genuine market leaders, Unilever, Ben & Gerry, Patagonia etc
    release product that complies with the intent and letter of their CSR

    CSR reports may be at risk of becoming internal documents, for
    shareholder return, stakeholder and employee engagement, unless the physical product has whole of life-cycle impact assessment.
    The practice must reflect the principle.
    Australian Government Voluntary Product Stewardship arrangements; , and a number in Canada provincially, are an examples of a world leading initiative allowing business to
    ‘brand’ their market leading practice.
    Think of the product as 3 dimensional CSR.
    the product socially and environmentally responsible? Is it sourced,
    manufactured and sold with minimum impact? Are the materials used
    harmful to our environment at end-of-life or do they contribute to a
    Cradle to cradle cycle? Extended Producer Responsibility will
    increasingly be demanded by both consumers at point of purchase and
    policy makers in a resource constrained and sensitive environment.

    It is then that the product continues to reflect the Corporate culture (CSR) long after it has left the shelf.
    Thanks again.