by Howard Allen
On my way to a meeting a guy working for Green Peace stopped me in the middle of the sidewalk to tell me that Nestle was burning down the rain forests and killing Orangutans in the Paradise Forest region of Southeast Asia. “Huh?” “Sir, would you please sign this petition to stop Nestle from sourcing palm oil from companies that are burning down the rain forests?”
After taking a moment to process what was being said to me I could only think to myself, “Why is Nestle allowing itself to be put in a position where someone can make this accusation? Do consumers really want to think about this when they buy their Kit-Kat bars and NesCafe?”
So I went and did a little research online and the first thing that pops up on the Nestle website is“Nestle Tops Sustainability Report”. What a minute, I thought Nestle was responsible for the burning down of Southeast Asian rain forests and orangutans?
After a few more clicks on other web sites I learn that Nestle released a statement from its headquarters in Switzerland denouncing it’s relationship with palm oil processing company Sinar Mas (who also supplies palm oil to Cargil) in exchange for the removal of a YouTube video campaign created by Green Peace.
In light of what is going on with companies like Nestle, BP, Nike and many others, the ability to present oneself as a good corporate citizen garners great value for their brands. I don’t believe corporations are malicious and evil; however the ability to obtain the raw materials in quantities that would enable them to manufacture the products people demand around the world is a tough balancing act and it often times doesn’t seem very sustainable. There needs to be a change in how companies do business.
Why does it matter?
A recent global study on valuing corporate social responsibility by McKinsey indicates an increase in perceived importance of corporate environmental, social and governance programs. According to the study, two-thirds of CFOs and three-quarters of investment professionals agree that environmental, social, and governance activities do create value for their shareholders in normal economic times.
On the flipside of that sentiment, the McKinsey study on climate change states that very few companies translate the importance of climate change into corporate action. Furthermore, it goes on to say that many respondents reported that their companies only occasionally consider climate change when managing their brands, during new product development or managing corporate reputation.
What’s the problem?
When looking at the web sites of many multinational companies, it would seem as though these conversations about corporate responsibility and branding have already taken place. I’m sure if I dig a little deeper I’ll find that being a good steward to the earth and being socially responsible is part of many companies core brand values. Nevertheless, it seems these messages aren’t resonating in the c-suite where decisions are being made to partner with companies that clearly don’t align with a companies core brand values.
Corporate partners who will unconscionably cut down trees in the rain forest on your behalf are bad for business in the long run. So how are executives missing that message when there are so many examples to learn from? I’m not sure, but it may have to do with their focus on profits and efficiency, both of which are necessary in order to stay in business. Many would even say there still doesn’t seem to be a satisfactory method for executives to quantify the financial impact of acting in an ethical manner in terms of environmental or social responsibility.
It makes all the sustainability committees, multi-million dollar rebranding efforts seem a bit disingenuous after a while. The newly redesigned retail spaces and updated package design just become the veneer on a larger corporate PR spin if corporate leadership is unable to connect their brand values of material sourcing, processing and manufacture. And that’s not even the full product life-cycle. As a society we haven’t properly dealt with the issue of discarding and recycling yet because we can’t get the first part of developing the product right. (Would anybody like to have my first generation iPod? I replaced it with a shiny new iPhone and I can’t seem to find a use for it.)
Where do designers and engineers fit into this equation?
Generally speaking, they are a world away from decisions being made about the procurement of raw materials. By the time that level of information reaches the design teams, the decisions have already been made and the trees are falling to the ground. However, there is hope. Partnering with your colleagues in marketing and HR to develop a mandatory executive training program on branding could be helpful, especially for new executives to understand the relationship between the core values of the brand they’re leading and daily decisions they will be asked to make.
Another approach would be to include brand value information as part of the process of selecting corporate partners. This will increase the possibility of having the proper alignment of values between partners and everyone understands what the expectations are.
If companies want consumers to make their products a part of their lives, they can’t continue to produce things in a manner that will eventually end our lives.
Howard Allen is an independent design strategist focused on collaborating with executives to determine how design is enabling their organizations to be more agile, sustainable and innovative.Formerly a design director at PricewaterhouseCoopers, Howard has greatly benefited from working within a global firm alongside partners connected to the interests of business leaders. Howard is also an ’05 alum of Pratt’s DM program.