Not every company can have a CEO like Paul Polman. As head of Unilever, Polman is widely regarded as one of the leaders in promoting sustainability as core to his company's business strategy. In fact, years ago I collaborated with friend and colleague Ellen Weinreb on a research project where Polman was named a Pioneer of Sustainability.  But to be blunt, most CEOs aren't like him. And to be even blunter, many... well, they just don't get it. 

So what's a corporate social responsibility (CSR) professional to do if your CEO doesn't care about CSR or, worse, opposes the very idea? Through the course of my career, I learned several approaches to shift the mindset:

Appeal to Legacy

Let's be honest, in order to become a CEO, you have to have an ego. So use that.

According to a study by Equilar, the average CEO tenure is 7.4 years. To me, that's just long-enough to have true influence, but short enough that the CEO will feel a sense of urgency to make their mark.  CSR / sustainability can be a means to get a CEO to impact the company's business model and the company's culture. If the CEO is successful at both, their legacy will survive long beyond the CEO's tenure. Ego = stroked. 


Some of the "old guard" thinking about CSR / sustainability is stereotyped by a quote from Milton Friedman - the (in)famous University of Chicago economist. The quote goes: 

“There is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.”

But as I covered way back in 2009 in "What Milt Wrought Right" on my previous blog, this quote is taken out of context. From a CSR leader's standpoint, it sounds greedy. But if you actually read the essay in which the quote comes from, Friedman spells out the times when CSR-related efforts are acceptable and indeed in a company's (shareholders') best interest. Using one of the most well-known free market thinkers as a surprising voice in favor of sustainability can be a powerful jiu-jitsu move. You're essentially using someone's strength against them and winning in the end. Nice!

Discover Your Data

Inside every company is a treasure trove of data. This information can be used to keep the focus on what's important: proof of a positive impact on the business bottom line as well as people and the planet. This is as opposed to distractions such as making arguments based on logic and emotion (which have their place, mind you).

As I've learned, finding the underlying story in your data can be natural leverage points. Search for the proof points in cost savings through efficiency gains, product innovation, customer demand (particularly for business-to-business, anecdotal information can be very useful), regulatory avoidance, risk mitigation or employee sentiment (this is not an exhaustive list).

This can be quantitative, such as calculating the cost savings with a 10% reduction in energy usage. Or it can be qualitative. As a real life example, I once worked with a consumer packaged goods company where the employees told executives they never buy their own products in the grocery store because they didn't want to serve the products to their kids. They didn't feel proud because the food was unhealthy and over-processed. How could the executives expect their marketers to market their food if they didn't want to serve it to their own children? Yikes. After this evidence, the company took steps to began to change.

Focus internally

It's tempting to cite consumer studies that show an increased level of consumer demand for corporate involvement in CSR. But consumers have a fickle fascination with CSR. Sometimes their purchasing behavior doesn't match their aspirations.

I've found that it's easier to focus internally instead. This can be as simple as conducting focus groups or surveys of employees to gauge their level of interest in sustainable business practices. Always interested in getting my hands on data, I once conducted a survey after a major company-wide CSR initiative and asked three simple questions: 

  • Through this initiative, did you create new business contacts in your community?
  • Did you learn to work better as a team in preparation for and in executing this initiative?
  • Did this initiative make you feel proud to work for this company?  

The results came back very positive and the data points were a part of the debrief we gave the CEO. It was one of the building blocks that got our project funded for a second year with (almost) no questions asked. 

Your thoughts

It can be an uphill battle if your C-Suite isn't behind you. But these four tips are a good place to start to seed the idea that sustainability can be something more than a cost center.  

But there are more ideas out there. What ways have you discovered to help C-Suite executives "see the light?"  Give me a shout through this site or on Twitter and let me know.