Does Corporate Sustainability Have A Credibility Problem?

If the content on company websites was complete and truthful, you’d have to conclude that we’re turning the corner on climate change and social injustice. Only it’s not, and we’re not.

Yes, corporate sustainability has a credibility problem.

The recent news about Coca-Cola is a good example. A special interest group called the Changing Markets Foundation recently revealed that Coca-Cola reached less than half of its goal for using recycled plastics in its bottles by 2015 (announced in 1990), and missed various revisions of that target between then and now. Also, the company has provided no updates on its announced intentions to use plant-based materials for a third of its bottles by 2020.

The interest group blames the company’s preference for making donations and grand gestures, all the while pocketing the cost savings from plastics prices that have gone down along with the price of oil. This practice was called greenwashing before it was subsumed by purpose.

And, sure enough, Coca-Cola made new pledges on recycling to an MacArthur Foundation initiative in 2018, encapsulated in its gloriously branded World Without Waste program.

A visit to the company’s website yields page after page of content about its progress on a variety of sustainability-related issues and its plans “to make the world’s packaging problem a thing of the past.” 

But the world’s problem is that Coca-Cola has a problem.

This truth is evidenced by a revelation the company made to the MacArthur Foundation that it produces 200,000 plastic bottles every minute…only that information isn’t on its website. What’s there instead is a wash of happy, inspiring language, numbers and percentages that all point in the right direction, and images of its products being held high by people as if in a salute.

So, there’s no reason to believe the company’s claims or its intentions.

What’s sad is that its lack of credibility is a self-inflicted wound, for three reasons that are common with many other companies’ reporting on sustainability:

The targets are unreachable, whether for wholly reconstituting the company and/or taking responsibility for saving the world. Citing lofty goals that management consultants have said that consumers care about says nothing about the reality of business…other than that companies are lazy, purchase the same research, and say the same things.

Stating a corporate purpose of making the world a better place (or whatever) is akin to voicing support for happiness and sunny days…it’s generic, and it sets up a crashing disconnect between what a company publicly claims and what it’s doing privately to stay in business.

Instead, why not pick targets for things that a business is pretty sure are reachable and then exceed them (that’s the stuff of an undergraduate class in communications, BTW). Skip all of the fluffy language — Coca-Cola says its Business and Sustainability Report is about “working together to create a better shared future for our people, our communities and our planet” — and focus instead on the specifics of a business and how sustainable practices are good for it first, not the planet or good feelings. Businesses are profit making entities and not NGOs, and if the truth that staying in business is a fundamental goal, someone will catch the disconnect sooner vs. later (as is the case for Coca-Cola).

Report honestly along the way. I’m sorry, but Coca-Cola’s sustainability reporting is disposable, as is similar content from many other companies, since it doesn’t reveal the complex and difficult realities of its efforts, nor the many shortcomings and failures that must be as common as its glowing accomplishments, if not more so.

Change is hard, and admitting that truth is a lot easier than pretending it isn’t because it screams authenticity — truth has a way of doing that — and helps inform as well as manage expectations, so when you know you’re going to miss one of those formerly achievable goals, saying so preempts it getting characterized as a willful crime. 

What’s hard, though, is that communicating honestly about sustainability must include revealing the tough operational decisions behind it, including making clear the trade-offs between short profits and longer term value expected from sustainable practices (or your metrics for them that should matter otherwise). Then tell your investors and your customers; if you can convince these two stakeholder groups, the Changing Markets Foundation and their ilk will pin blue ribbons on your company. 

Don’t brand sustainability. I mean, really? It’s the same for the nonsense names attached to corporate innovation programs; you’re just daring people to suspect that you’re up to something other than what you claim you’re doing. It is common sense that the bigger noise you make about things, the more attention you’ll get. Coca-Cola, like many companies, spends a lot of money producing content that declares and promotes its purpose to do things other than make fizzy drinks.

Despite this glib business strategy du jour, company purpose is still selling stuff and not even the gods of McKinsey or the Business Roundtable can absolve businesses of that sin. It’s just too easy, primarily because it’s unbelievable and ultimately unsustainable, despite all of the marketers happy to take client money to promote it.

To be judged honestly, companies need to be honest about the challenge, which is to choose operationally to destroy the planet and its people or make it and them better while selling whatever it is they sell. Sustainability is a business practice, not a good deed or marketing campaign attached to a brand, and it’s just sad that Coca-Cola and other companies buy into such branding inanity though, as the Changing Markets Foundation alleges about Coca-Cola, “it’s easier…than to really invest in it [solving plastic pollution].”

The only place that the world isn’t incinerating itself and punishing millions in poverty is on corporate websites. Starting tomorrow, companies should lock the marketers out of the room when it comes to communicating on sustainability.

I get that challenges from special interest groups are often based on facts taken out of context, and no non-profit is going to give its full blessing to a for-profit company. Interest groups exist as foils to corporations, so if businesses operated effectively on issues they cared about, and were convincing in communicating those efforts, those interest groups wouldn’t have a reason to exist. 

Since they thrive on conflict, there’s no resolving it.

But an open, honest, and ongoing conversation with stakeholders about realistic goals, the challenges in reaching them, and the centrality of any meaningful activity to business decisions that have real consequences for employees and investors would go a long way toward tipping that debate in the favor of businesses, at least with the stakeholders who are interested in the truth.

If Coca-Cola and other companies embraced this approach to addressing sustainability, it would also make it much harder to allege that they’re operating in bad faith…because they wouldn’t be doing so any longer.

Otherwise, who knows whether or not accusations like those from the Changing Marketing Foundation aren’t true?

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About Jonathan Salem Baskin

Author, Advisor, Agitator