Sunday, May 31, 2009

Walking the Talk

On May 23, my tweet and reference to an article from Environmental Leader was oriented towards evidence that links responsible and sustainable corporate actions or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), with building positive brand reputation, and then market differentiation. The article cites research by Natural Marketing Institute which found that lifestyles of health and sustainability consumers look for proof to back up product or service claims. This demand for product or service evidence of facts, like in medicine or design, must be backed up by some type of third party assurance process, like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval but at the ‘global house’ scale.

The current understanding of Corporate Social Responsibility recognizes some form of Triple Bottom Line (TBL) reporting, based on UN Global Compact Principles, Ceres Principles and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Guidelines, now regarded as the international standard. The TBL measures of organizational success are commonly referred to as environmental or planet, economic or profit and social or people. Since late 2006 and the introduction of the GRI G3 process, international corporations have embraced, at a rapid rate, sustainable principles and the TBL protocol. Ceres has tracked the corporate adoption of GRI from its initiation in 1997, noting a growth to 50 companies in 2000, 400 companies in 2004 and 1500 companies now. That equals a growth rate of 375% in 5 years, but there still remains a long way to go to meet global climate change initiatives.

The need for CSR is present in all corporations, large and small, international and regional, but is particularly appropriate to the design professional service corporations which already have an environmental responsibility by nature of licensing and practice. Clearly TBL should already be embedded in their cultures and vision statements, but the question is are they? And if so, how many actually have adopted the Ceres Principles and GRI and or TBL reporting? A review of the Ceres Companies shows only two architectural, engineering or planning firms listed, yet a review of the Architecture 2030 website would indicate that this type of sustainable commitment is much more common.

But why aren’t more large corporate architecture and engineering firms committing to Ceres Principles and GRI reporting? There are over 100 large, that is greater than 200 person, architectural and engineering firms in the US, so why are so few adopting this approach? Is it time and effort, fear of exposure of confidential information, the lack of true measurable goals, cultures of limited information sharing even within their own organization, or the clash of private firms and issues of public interest? Perhaps a review of one firm, Haley and Aldrich, which is a Ceres Company, would be useful to see what they say and what information they share. On their corporate website they have posted their 2008 sustainability report - People , Planet and Profit. The report is organized, readable and graphically well presented. Their vision is stated, success measures defined, a lean, increased value and decreased waste strategy presented, and a Plan-Do-Check-Adjust (PDCA) process stated to control implementation. The report has a simple four part structure, consisting of goals, recorded progress/metrics, assessment/grade and adjustments for 2009. The format follows the PDCA model and contains an open measurement of performance without the loss of confidential data.

To me it is an example of CSR that provides evidence of sustainable practices and creates differentiation from other peer professional firms - a disciplined, self regulating approach that, as Haley and Aldrich states, is “walking the talk.”


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