A Sustainable Planet Leads to Sustainable Profit

By Christophe Collet, S4M, CEO

There are plenty of lessons to take to heart from 2020.  Both the pandemic and the social justice movements ignited by the death of George Floyd in the U.S. have cracked open the protective shields many brands had been hiding behind.

And through this collective soul-searching and examination, we have seen a groundswell of action around diversity, equality & inclusion (DEI) as well as a recognition that brands must step up their efforts to become more reliable stewards of our planet’s sustainability.  I know there are plenty of cynics out there who have heard this all before.  I understand their hesitancy, but I truly believe that 2020-21 represents a meaningful inflection point in the history of global business and therefore for the planet.  Whereas in the past, corporate interests have been quick to pay lip service to the notions of DEI and sustainability without following through in a sincere manner, I feel the momentum that was started last year will continue to grow and generate actual results that are positive and measurable.

So why the optimism?

Two factors are driving my predictions for concrete improvements in corporate social responsibility.  First of all, I think a once-in-a-century global health crisis like Covid-19 truly has been a wake-up call.  If we look back at the history of brands’ CSR efforts, they were often precipitated by little ripples in the broader world.  In contrast, Covid-19 has been an earthquake.  Its causes and impact have shone a harsh light on some fundamental cracks in the foundation of how this planet operates.  A wide range of thorny challenges– including climate change, disaster preparedness, global healthcare infrastructure, food security and of course racial and gender equality—can no longer be dismissed.   To put it bluntly, non-ethical business models will no longer fly in the face of Covid-19’s historic impact.

The often singular focus on maximizing shareholder value and company profits can no longer be sustainable.   All businesses need now to prioritize empathy and responsibility alongside victory.   It’s good to see many companies have already been doing this.  They are a diverse bunch that includes Apple, Clorox and Patagonia.

While there is still much work to be done, already, in the past six months, we have seen ad agencies, as well as Fortune 500 companies and technology players all, make tangible efforts to address equality in a way that seems foundational and systemic and not just as one-off moves to respond to societal pressure.  In this regard, I see that companies are going beyond just lofty rhetoric.  It began with the Facebook boycott last summer in protest of hate speech and disinformation.  Unlike previous platform boycotts, which were enacted through a more narrow brand safety lens, last year’s actions heightened the notion of “ethical whitelisting” that can lead marketers to support media platforms and channels that espouse more progressive practices around employment and sustainability.

Making foundational, systemic changes requires hard work, inspiration and a level of granular commitment that refreshes a corporate DNA where doing good works is blended with the burning desire to succeed.

This should feature how every action a staffer takes should be informed with a reverence for sustainability—how am I contributing to CO2 emissions by traveling by plane to this conference when I can get there by train without any appreciable loss of productivity.  Another way that brands can help the planet is by placing sustainability squarely in the middle of its supply chain evaluation and partnerships.  Which partners have the same commitment to green initiatives that match mine?

Okay, if you’re still skeptical about all this, this next bit might get your attention.  This philosophical corporate re-engineering might be on its way to becoming mandatory. The investor community—typically a prescient and sober-minded group—has acknowledged a more enlightened approach as outlined here is actually good for the bottom line.  Investors have adopted the mindset that unless we take care of the planet, no one can succeed.

Expect to see more venture capitalists and private equity folks evaluating companies in large part on their commitments to sustainability.  These leaders have realized that the existential threat is so real that the world truly needs saving.  It is no longer an eye-rolling cliché they can dismiss.