I had the pleasure of meeting with nationally recognized corporate social responsibility (CSR) consultant James Epstein-Reeves a few weeks ago for one of my informational interviews that I do as a part of my job search and my ongoing professional development about causes connecting with profit.
Ever heard of Burt’s Bees Zero Waste goal by 2020 or eaten a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream (you know you have) knowing that all of their flavors will be sourced Fair Trade by 2013? These brands, owned by Unilever and Clorox respectively, might not be owned by the ideal face of America to some, but they embody a movement to providing consumers with what they want. And that’s what corporate social responsibility is geared to- meeting the demands of the market (us- the consumers)- and having a signficant impact on society, the environment, and profit.
It’s triple bottom line economics- people, profit, and society- that drive this effort.
James, a CSR consultant here in Chicago, helps companies address the triple bottom line. He comes from the Washington D.C. think-tank world, beginning his research about CSR and public policy there, before becoming Director of Community Affairs at OfficeMax. He is now founder and president of Do Well Do Good, LLC, a CSR, corporate philanthropy, and cause marketing consulting firm here in Chicago. James is a writer for the Forbes.com Corporate Social Responsibility blog and a video commentator for CSR Unscripted through 3BL Media.
He agreed to a more formal interview beyond our early morning, “No, I”m really wide awake.,” cup of coffee and informational interview. I’m delighted to share his insights about this growing part of American business. It is increasingly a part of some of America’s most highly sought after business schools like Harvard which is preparing the Millenial generation’s future business leaders.
Here is the interview.
As I talk to more people about cause marketing, I learn more about how it’s just one part of a larger paradigm shift in how companies are “doing good” in their day-to-day operations. For example, I met a woman at the Cause Marketing Forum here in Chicago last year who directs a hip-hop clothing company’s employee volunteer program by connecting employees with volunteer opportunities.
I know that you lead in getting OfficeMax’s employee volunteer program off the ground. Can you talk a little about the role of volunteerism and employee philanthropy in CSR?
Thanks, Anna. This is a great question as it hits on a number of issues. There are a lot of business opportunities in engaging your employees in the company’s CSR efforts. But first, it’s vital to draw a distinction between volunteerism and philanthropy and CSR. A lot of people get confused by this, but CSR is basically a synonymous term with sustainability.
I define CSR as a set of actions a company takes to change business operations to improve, maintain, or mitigate a company’s impact on society and the environment.
Yes, this includes volunteerism and philanthropy as one of many tools to do this – but volunteerism and philanthropy by themselves do not constitute a CSR program. CSR also includes issues such as procurement policies, human rights screenings of overseas factories, conflict of interest policies, diversity & inclusion, carbon footprint analysis and reduction, the management of landfill waste, materials used in manufacturing, and stakeholder engagement – to name only a few.
So having said all of that, yes, a key business driver of a company’s CSR strategy is to get employees involved. And indeed getting employees involved in their communities and in causes they care about is a terrific and rewarding job or career path.
It was a team effort when I was at OfficeMax and we did many things that effectively engaged our employees such as marrying the company’s philanthropic activities with the volunteerism from employees. The company also matched employee donations through the annual employee giving campaign.
But what was most exciting, rewarding, and what had the largest impact was A Day Made Better. This single-day event was the company’s flagship community & cause-marketing effort. It united the company by surprising, on one day, usually at 10 AM in each time zone, a deserving teacher with essentially a year’s worth of school supplies. Oh yea, by the way, we did this times 1,000. The surprises were Publisher’s Clearinghouse-ambush-style – balloons, flowers the whole bit!
The company did this because teachers spend on average over $600 of their own money on school supplies. This is wrong and OfficeMax decided to do something about it by engaging its employees and bringing the media’s attention to the effort to “erase teacher-funded classrooms.”
Through these efforts, we got over 4,500 associates to volunteer nearly 11,000 hours. It was a massive initiative and truly helped get employees engaged in their local communities, and engaged every part, department, and location of the company.
Beyond companies engaging employees in volunteer projects, what do companies and nonprofits often ask you about when they sit down with you to develop their corporate social responsibility programs?
It depends on the company and nonprofit. But usually it’s about how to bring their existing efforts to the next level. Sometimes it’s a matter of just having a fresh perspective, sometimes the work involved in the project is working hand-in-hand with the client to galvanize internal support for a new direction, and sometimes the project work might be just rolling up the sleeves and getting the hard work done to help advance “the cause.” That’s one of the most exciting things about a consulting job – you fulfill many different roles. One of my favorite roles is to do research and benchmarking and we’ve really done some cool things. The research we conduct ourselves and don’t involve confidential client information, we make available for free on our web site.
Your background is in working for a think tank in Washington D.C. Are there any ways of conceptually framing corporate social responsibility that you discovered in academia which you find are helpful as a consultant working with companies on these issues now?
Interesting question! Certainly a lot of analytical skills have crossed over from my “think-tank days” to the business world. I would say the research skills have been particularly helpful in both lines of work as well. I think one of the best ways to frame CSR is to fundamentally look at what are the expectations of businesses. Through some research we’ve done, we’ve uncovered some interesting set of consumer expectations of companies in CSR in a public opinion survey we released in December. In short, 88% of consumers think companies should try to accomplish their business goals while improving society and the environment.
This is really important and its something I’ve been pretty black and white about: companies exist to make money. That makes some people uncomfortable, but it’s undeniable. Without a profit motive, our society wouldn’t function. The trick about CSR and sustainability is that it understands the profit-motive, but looks to identify a different means of achieving that same goal.
Is CSR going to save the world? Absolutely not. Companies aren’t either. But businesses do have a responsibility to society and the environment beyond meeting the minimum legal expectations. Moreover, sustainability can be a contributing factor to provide the long-term thinking that helps companies achieve stable growth.
Are there any programs in the world of CSR that you think are spectacularly awesome?
There are a lot of examples, a ton actually. One of the things that’s been really neat to see as the field has developed over the past decade or two is the depth and breadth of companies engaging in these issues.
More specifically, I think Walmart is the “sleeping giant” of sustainability from the consumer’s perspective. Few consumers understand the fundamental shift Walmart is going to cause through its efforts in the Sustainability Consortium. The company is leading the effort to quantify the sustainability impacts of products at the individual product or unit level. This will likely be a huge shift in the information available to suppliers, consumers, and companies and could wind up being a game-changer for all businesses beyond those that supply Walmart.
Otherwise there are a ton of examples of companies doing incredible things. I’m a big fan of companies that announce goals related to CSR/sustainability: Walmart is moving to zero waste by 2020. Both Coke & Pepsi have amazing efforts behind their Live Positively and Performance with a Purpose programs, respectively. P&G is working toward a 20% reduction in CO2 emissions, water usage, and disposed waste.
Note, these aren’t “hippies” and these aren’t marketing fluff promises. These are real deal, capitalist companies that have the “Wall Street street cred,” but are making significant changes to their business operations that go beyond “feel good” and corporate programs that are the “right thing to do.”
Any advice that you would give to someone like me who wants to work in areas where social causes are connecting with profit? For instance, are there any trends in CSR that you think will lead to a significant amount of more jobs and responsibilities in the near future?
Another good question. I think one mistake I see people make when they try to enter the field is to argue for CSR from a moral or principled standpoint. True, that’s a part of my perspective as well, but you have to find the ways to influence an organization beyond taking a moral stance. That’s where business acumen really comes into play. If you can speak the language of business and if you truly understand your company’s operations, it’s going to be much easier to create the change needed in a company.
I think green energy is the trend to latch on to. I just can’t imagine that field not taking off more than it already has.
But the best advice is to just do it. Seriously, don’t just wait around and try to connect with a mega-conglomerate company to “see the light.” Start your own company and create the change you want. Sure it’s hard, but that’s the best way for you to truly ensure that the future of business looks to improve society and the environment. If starting your own business isn’t your thing – focus on getting involved. Net Impact is an incredible organization and likely has a chapter near you – anyone interested in sustainability should join the organization. More general advice I give people is that an underappreciated component of a CSR leader is communication skills. Not just writing press releases (although that experience helps!), but knowing how to communicate your company’s efforts and, if necessary, defend your company’s position on a hot button issue.