Imperceptible But Meaningful Change

Imperceptible But Meaningful Change

 “If mankind is not to perish after all the dreadful things it has done and gone through, then a new spirit must emerge.  And this new spirit is coming not with a roar but with a quiet birth, not with grand measures and words but with an imperceptible change in the atmosphere – a change in which each one of us is participating…”

If ever there were a New Year’s wish for humanity, this beautiful prose from Albert Schweitzer would fit the bill perfectly.  A new year, a new spirit, a new chance to live and work responsibly and sustainably.  It is the season for looking back and looking ahead, and I’ve been doing a lot of both lately.  Colleagues, clients and friends have been asking me what I’m seeing in terms of coming trends in corporate responsibility and sustainability.  Here’s what I’ve been telling them.

In spite of changes in Congress, questions over the validity of research, and a general “green fatigue” on the part of many Americans, climate change will still be accepted as the primary environmental issue and challenge of our time.  Research strongly suggests that citizens expect businesses to play a role in mitigating it, and act in concert with government to address it.  Additionally, business risk related to climate change will remain increasingly important to mainstream investors, and many will continue to scrutinize corporate sustainability reports and other collateral as a window into the company and its exposure. 

Leading companies are recognizing and responding to consumer demands for action and information regarding climate change, and embracing this as an opportunity for reputation building and thought leadership.  To stand out, companies will need to rethink where and how they share and celebrate their climate change related programs, policies and partnerships with customers and stakeholders.  As is often the case, one innovative and memorable effort will be worth more than dozens of smaller ones.

External influencers and organizations will continue to impact consumer brand perceptions more than corporate PR or CSR reports.  Research suggests that consumers want more information on a company’s commitment to corporate responsibility and sustainability, but need that information in simpler ways and where it connects to them.  In response to these changing influences on consumer brand perceptions, sector leaders will need to integrate their company’s CSR story into mainstream consumer communications channels – from marketing and television advertising to in-store displays and product packaging to digital communications.

Interest in the environment will remain strong on the part of both businesses and consumers. We will also continue to see an increase in firms applying for LEED certification for their facilities, and entering into strategic partnerships with environmental conservation organizations.  It will be essential for companies to carefully navigate “green” opportunities and partnerships, as vocal consumers, activist NGOs and government regulators such as the Federal Trade Commission continue to call firms out for greenwashing, fraudulent claims and abuse of marketing communications.        

Water use, availability and scarcity will continue to be of growing concerns in nearly every part of the world, posing a major operational and reputational issue for companies.  This is especially true for firms in water-intensive industries, but since every company uses water, it will be an issue for the entire business sector.  Companies will need to get in front of the water issue first by conducting assessments of their true water “footprint”, taking steps to minimize use throughout their supply chains and product lifecycles and then highlighting success stories and sharing best practices with customers, partners, regulators and other stakeholders.

As companies and individuals continue to take action and find new ways to be more responsible and sustainable in the year ahead, 2011 presents an opportunity for humanity’s finest hour.  The critical changes we need don’t have to come with a roar or with grand measures, to paraphrase Schweitzer’s poignant words, although many of our greatest challenges certainly deserve and require them.  In the spirit of an ambitious New Year’s resolution for the world, it would be wonderful to see every individual, organization and company ask themselves how they can participate in that imperceptible but meaningful change.

Chad Tragakis, Senior Vice President, Hill & Knowlton, Washington. Author at the blog ResponsAbility