Is there a corporate ‘common cause’?
This was originally published by the Guardian Sustainable Business 19÷02÷13
Sometimes, simple ideas have far-reaching implications, and the Common Cause report – which created ripples throughout the charity sector in 2012 is a perfect example of this. The central argument in Common Cause is deceptively simple: there is a cluster of values like concern for the welfare of others, that underpins social and environmental concern. Any campaign that does not seek to support or nurture these values risks undermining the common cause that links all organisations working for a fairer, more sustainable world.
While it may be advantageous in the short term for an environmental charity to emphasise the financial benefit of household energy saving measures, this will do nothing to build public support for tackling climate change. Evidence suggests it may actually backfire, reinforcing the values that undermine social and environmental concern.
Common Cause presents a robust challenge to the status quo of charity campaigning (increasingly built around superficial monetary transactions, rather than more substantive engagement), the arguments have for the most part fallen on receptive ears. After all, if there is a part of society that would be expected to understand the value of working together to achieve a shared, common purpose, it is the charity sector. But can the same be said for the corporate world?
Competition is a principle at the heart of capitalism. A company may take significant steps towards improving the sustainability of its supply chain. But ultimately, it is seeking to gain a bigger market share than its competitors. It is not looking to share.
A small minority of brands (such as Patagonia) have begun to raise really difficult questions for the corporate sector – not just consuming differently, but consuming less. While these companies clearly take sustainability more seriously than most, they are still seeking to increase their market share. In short, they are still in competition. Could the private sector ever conceivably develop a common cause around sustainability, based on co-operation not competition?
One challenge that many businesses with sustainability goals have in common is how to encourage their customers to act on the sustainability guidance they give them. A drinks company will want their products to be recycled; a clothing company may encourage their customers to use less energy in the washing process.
In exactly the same way that charity and governmental campaigns on climate change have targeted specific behaviours – switching off lights, or unplugging phone chargers – detached from the context in which they occur, businesses currently focus exclusively on the single issue related to their product.
Perhaps, the common cause for corporations seeking to make real progress on sustainability would mean investing their significant communications resources in engaging their customers around climate change and sustainability, but without these campaigns being linked to a particular product or sales pitch.
The payback, from the perspective of the companies investing in such a strategy, would be that each individual behaviour they wished to promote – recycling or washing clothes at a colder temperature – would be made more likely by a common determinant: the values, beliefs and identities that underpin all of their customers’ behaviours.
Once a critical mass of companies were committed legally, morally, and institutionally to sustainability goals that were predicated on selling less, making things that lasted longer and expected to be fixed rather than replaced, could companies conceivably promote public engagement with climate change for the good of the sector as a whole?
This currently inconceivable approach would not be the end of the story however. As Tom Crompton, the author of the original Common Cause report has explained, there is also an internal challenge for companies that are serious about sustainability:
“The marketing industry has a particular responsibility to examine the impact of its activities on cultural values [but] a company’s management culture, the incentives it offers its employees, and its contribution to public priorities through the lobbying activities of its trade associations, are all likely to have crucial impacts on cultural values. It is quite conceivable that these factors – hitherto largely ignored in the debate on sustainable business practice – may be of far greater environmental significance than the direct material impacts of a particular range of products or services.”
There is a mountain to climb before the corporate sector could even begin to start thinking about developing a common cause around sustainability. If ultimately, the secret to a truly engaged public and genuinely sustainable society is the promoting and nurturance of values like altruism, above and beyond competitiveness, is there any choice but to start the ascent?
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