Sustainability won't be the first to go

Anyone who thought that the economic downturn was a threat to the corporate sustainability movement should have come to the annual CERES conference, held in Boston in late April. Nearly 700 corporations, including large multinationals; small enterprises; major investors; NGOs; and, a range of consultancies, think tanks, and government representatives gathered to drive forward the environmental business agenda.

Anyone who thought that the economic downturn was a threat to the corporate sustainability movement should have come to the annual CERES conference, held in Boston in late April. Nearly 700 corporations, including large multinationals; small enterprises; major investors; NGOs; and, a range of consultancies, think tanks, and government representatives gathered to drive forward the environmental business agenda. In the US, which has not always led the world on sustainability, something big is happening, and there is no sign that it will recede. The sustainability industry (and it is now a multibillion-dollar industry) has no intention of reverting to its traditional role as the first thing to go when times are tough.

Certainly, for the company that has yet to embark on a deeply embedded sustainability strategy, the fate of any plan hangs in the balance as the threat of hard times looms. The firm that views care for the planet as "nice to have," or as little more than philanthropy, is unlikely to prosper until the economic downturn passes. But sustainable development is not about philanthropy, and many companies have now embedded it to such an extent that it is simply a part of the way in which they do business. It forms the core DNA of their modus operandi, and, in that sense, is much harder to undo. Not to mention the cost savings that properly executed plans bring - through more prudent use of natural resources, a highly motivated workforce, reputational benefits, a bank of goodwill with non-governmental organizations and other stakeholders, and improved investor relations. Done well, corporate responsibility is a profit center, not a cost. Investors are taking it more seriously by the day, for this very reason.

There is strong evidence that CEOs increasingly recognize the importance of corporate responsibility as a key driver of business strategy and reputation. Research conducted by Weber Shandwick found that corporate responsibility mentions in CEO letters to shareholders increased 18% from 2003 to 2007 - a clear sign that CEOs are embracing corporate responsibility as never before.

Companies that are well down the path of corporate responsibility are unlikely to dismantle their green strategies, because they can't. And in communications terms, as competition for sales and market share becomes fiercer during a recession, ethics form a key part of the corporate toolbox.

Corporate responsibility saves money, builds reputation, and provides new angles for communication, across all the marketing disciplines. It builds and cements a bond of trust between a brand and its customers. In times of economic hardship, that trust provides a greater value than ever. Our challenge as communicators is to make sure clients understand the high reputational cost of any diminishing commitment to sustainability.

Brendan May is managing director of Planet 2050, Weber Shandwick's global CR & sustainability practice. Micho Spring is the chairperson for Weber Shandwick's corporate practice in the US.

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