The Role of Business Leaders in Sustainability; Q&A with Andrew Winston

Versaic speaks with globally recognized sustainability expert
Jun 27, 2016 1:45 PM ET
Campaign: Getting to Impact

The Versaic Blog

Versaic is excited to bring you a Q&A session with Andrew Winston.

Andrew is a globally recognized expert on how companies can navigate and profit from humanity’s biggest challenges. His views on strategy have been sought after by many of the world’s leading companies, including Boeing, HP, J&J, Kimberly-Clark, PepsiCo, PwC, and Unilever. Andrew's latest book, The Big Pivot has been selected among the "Best Business Books of 2014" by Strategy+Business magazine. His first book, Green to Gold, was the topselling green business title of the last decade and was included in Inc. Magazine’s all-time list of 30 books that every manager should own.

He has spoken all over the world – in Europe, Russia, Brazil, the Middle East, and China – bringing his ideas to leadership meetings of the top executives of Fortune 500 companies, large industry conferences, and high-profile events like the World Innovation Forum and TED.

Versaic: Why should companies invest in CSR? 

Andrew: “Invest” is the right word here. Often with sustainability, the discussion is about ‘cost’ only, when all aspects of a business force choices about use of capital. In other aspects of the business, like marketing or R&D, it’s clearly discussed as an investment. But anyway, I’d want to clarify what “CSR” means here also. That’s an often narrower idea than sustainability. Things that companies call CSR are often conflated with philanthropy and not tied as closely to business value. So, in short, companies should invest in the broader idea of sustainability because it creates business value in many ways. It reduces costs (often it’s about doing more with less), cuts risk, builds resilience, drives innovation and revenues, helps attract and retain talent, and builds brand value.

Versaic: What brand and marketing value can CSR and Sustainability Initiatives bring?

Andrew: Sustainable brands are more connected to their customers. As long as companies are legitimately doing the things they’re talking about under the sustainability banner, and their achievements are measurable and significant, they can connect more deeply with their employees and customers.

Versaic: What advice do you have for brand marketers who are trying to make CSR or sustainability an essential part of the business?

Andrew: You have to talk about it internally like you would any other business investment. Honestly, only sustainability faces a level of ‘guilty until proven innocent’ pressure about the return on investment – regular marketing doesn’t have to justify that it will invest in the brand.

Versaic: What are the unexpected benefits or outcomes that you have seen for companies that have implemented CSR Programs successfully? 

Andrew: I’m not sure anything is that unexpected anymore amongst the many companies that have pursued sustainability initiatives for years, but some have been pleasantly surprised by how much innovation a sustainability lens can drive, and by how strong the interest from employees is. An engaged workforce is a better, more innovative, more profitable one.

Versaic: What are some of your favorite CSR brands and what makes their programs so effective?

Andrew: I’ve worked with Unilever for years, but watched them for much longer. The company is deeply committed to embedding sustainability deep into the brands and operations. The elements of their robust sustainability program are numerous, but some key elements are having aggressive goals in place across the full value chain, a big vision for growth coupled with a smaller footprint, extensive work on sourcing more sustainability, and real effort to connect many brands to a larger purpose.

Versaic: How can companies truly differentiate themselves in how they communicate their CSR initiatives and results?

Andrew: They need to find some aspects of their story that are unique to their history and their brands. Much of the agenda will overlap with peers and competitors, but there is always some way to talk about the role the company plays in society and in its communities that ties to the core reason for the company’s existence or the deeper purpose of key brands.

Versaic: Where do you see CSR going? What is going to be important 3 years from now?

Andrew: The mega-trends driving a deep change in business are clear: a changing climate, resource pressures, rising transparency (enabled by better tech and bigger data), increasing concern about inequality, and generational shifts in expectations of business, just to name a few. In a few years, we will see more of all of these, like even greater demands from customers to know more about products – where did they come from, who made them, how much did they make, and so on. And there will be even more attention on climate change as the extremes around the world continue to get worse and nearly every country is enacting commitments from the Paris climate agreement. Finally, as Millennials take a larger and more senior role in companies and society, expectations of business will continue to rise.


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