The Forces Encouraging Sustainability as a Business Model
One hundred years after the first powered flight, the oceans are no longer impenetrable barriers that keep people, ideas and information apart.
Today people travel more than ever before, and corporations often outsource products and send workers to new locales. This leads to exposure of both companies and individuals to differing practices and societal norms. This invites natural comparisons, with the accompanying pressure for a company to match benefits to the individual and the community that are perceived as beneficial. Companies that wish to relocate employees may find that those employees insist on negotiating for a combination of the “best” benefits from both their “home country” and the “host country.” This in turn exposes workers in the host country to the new practices and may put pressure on that office to increase their offering to its local employees. Knowledge of and insistence upon these ‘best of both worlds’ packages puts pressure on the company and indeed business in general that results in increased salaries, but also superior benefits such as vacation time, pensions and profit sharing, health insurance and maternity leave. Sometimes by their very existence in a community a company redefines the local expectations as well – such as by making products that the indigenous population may covet for themselves.
Information is now shared at the speed of a mouse-click. News no longer waits for the morning edition of the paper or the 11 PM broadcast. This has fueled an ever-increasing appetite and a growing market for news – as producers, editors, reporters and writers scramble to fill the increased demand for information created by a 24-hour news cycle. It is important to note that with few exceptions (such as entertainment and show business reporting) nobody ever achieved ratings by filling a serious newscast with “good” or “soft” news.
An obvious example of the power of the Internet to provide swift information around the world is the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC. Within 15 minutes of the first plane striking the north tower of the World Trade Center, Web traffic was up by 400 percent at VG Nett. Within an hour, the Internet was literally grinding to a halt, as millions upon millions of people tried to get to the news servers of Sky, BBC, CNN and other large news providers. This demonstrates how the Internet works in tandem with traditional media: The public may find out about an item of news through another medium (radio, TV or even word-of-mouth), and then logs on to the Internet to get the full picture of the situation.
Increasing Stakeholder Activism
The concurrent advent of information technology and globalization has combined to not only increase the speed and availability of information, but also a greater ease in the sharing of ideas and values. Together IT and globalization are largely responsible for the rising interest in social responsibility, and provide a powerful tool for companies, their stakeholder and their critics alike to share information. The implication for media relations/public relations professionals cannot be overstated because these changes are not only impacting the mechanisms by and through which information can be shared, but also transforming the content of the messages being disseminated. Most dramatically, the messages must be in alignment with observable actions around the globe.
Companies can no longer expect that information about overseas production facilities and working conditions (such as those at Apple supplier FoxConn) will remain confined to the local area. Likewise, information about beneficial programs that a company or its competitors are using in one part of the world can lead to questions by stakeholders from thousands of miles away. The result is increased scrutiny and a progressively rising bar based on the “best in class” in each industry.
While politicians and scientists debate the facts, the public is becoming increasingly convinced and concerned about the environmental impact of human activity. People see the flooding of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, record heat-waves in Europe, satellite images of melting glaciers as connected events based on a changing climate. These stakeholders are looking at the environmental impacts of business with a critical eye.
This increasing stakeholder concern is leading to increasing expectations and demands. An environmental program in Europe may give rise to questions about why a company is not engaging in the practice universally.
The Linkage Between Economics and Politics is Becoming More Widely Understood
As Thomas Friedman pointed out in The World Is Flat people are becoming increasingly aware that their purchasing decisions are also political decisions. Purchasing goods provides an economic incentive and positive reinforcement of the existing social, political, environmental status quo in those items’ country of origin.
Therefore CSR provides the opportunity – and some would argue the obligation – to further issues such as human rights such as providing equal opportunity, living wages and improved working conditions. It is quite natural, however, that the governments, religious leaders, and economically powerful in those counties would see the exact same actions as political agenda that as an attempt to destabilize local governments, faiths and society.
The Need to Rebuild the Global Economy as a Sustainable Economy
It seems like a circular argument to state that one of the forces encouraging sustainability is the need to build something sustainable, but the collapse of the global financial markets and worldwide recession demonstrates the need to build something that will resist such a catastrophic collapse in the future.
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John Friedman, an award-winning communications professional and recognized sustainability expert with more than 20 years of experience, is co-founder and vice chair of the board for the Sustainable Business Network of Washington (SBNOW).
Friedman has served as both an external and internal sustainability leader, helping companies, ranging from small companies to leading global enterprises, turn their values into successful business models by integrating their environmental, social, and economic aspirations into their cultures and business practices.
His insights on sustainability issues and strategy are a regular feature on Huffington Post.
Friedman authored the e-publication The New PR which outlines how companies must modify the way they communicate to meet stakeholders' changing expectations through five proven keys for developing programs that replace "spin" with transparency and unlock the full potential of a sustainability program to build reputational capital. Friedman is currently working on a new book Your Backyard Is My Front Yard.