The Noble Distractions of CSR, Part II: 3rd Party Certifications

by | Mar 8, 2011

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This three part series is designed to inspire dialogue around the values of Authentic CSR. “Authentic” is not used as a precondition for “ethically better.” Rather, it is used as an internal strategic gauge/guide – i.e. what does successful CSR look like when driven by your company rather than some perceived public leaning or external standard.  I argue that there are noble distractions (such as 3rd party certifications) of CSR, and that the distractions carry unnecessary costs and exposures that are detrimental to both corporate financial and sustainability goals.

There are upwards of 700  3rd party certifications or ‘trustmarks’ designed to validate marketing, operational or materiality claims.  Consumers are asked to navigate this din of ecolabels.  In theory, trustmarks exist to make sustainable consumption more accessible, but they are so ubiquitous that they create a kind of white noise that end up cannibalizing their own intent.  This white noise is as prevalent for business as it is consumers.  For corporations, 3rd party certifications offer external bars that may ultimately be distracting from businesses.

One way in to this discussion is to understand that the cultural condition that creates the necessity for these marks is actually the absence of two other conditions.

1.     Absolute trust

2.     A functioning panopticon

“Absolute trust” has not exactly been the hallmark of capitalism. From Robber Barron industrialists to ENRON, the narrative of capitalism is littered with abuse and obfuscation. How else to explain government intervention in CEO salaries, FTC Greenguides, the EPA, plummeting consumer trust and rising consumer expectations? And while ethical business is part of the new social entrepreneurialism, it may in fact be too high an expectation – a false footing – for the “rest of business.” 3rd party certifications were created as a stand-in for corporate-consumer trust.

Classically, the panopticon is a type of prison building structure designed to allow an observer to watch all prisoners without the prisoner knowing if they are being watched or not.  In the panopticon, everyone assumes they are being watched so everyone behaves. More modernly, panopticon is a metaphor for technology – a deployed set of observational structures (updates, tweets, check-ins, links and predictive behaviors)…  Perhaps we are closer to a functioning panopticon than we think…

But for now, business has the tool of the ecolabel to work with as both measure and measurement of its commitments to CSR principles.  So how do these well-intended external standards become noble distractions to the business of business and sustainability?

Certifications like USDA Organic, FSC, Cruelty Free, FairTrade, Good Housekeeping, etc., exist for businesses to legitimize their claims. In this scenario, they become representations of a trust you do not enjoy.  But they are also marketing shortcuts – a quick identifier for the consumer that you have achieved some (any) standard.  But they are standards set outside of your organization. At best, they serve to benchmark your company against your competitors (have vs. have not).  At worst, they are distractions from core measurements set from within the company that could help the company achieve better-aligned sustainability goals.

Companies are compelled to achieve these standards because of the modern condition of a presumed consumer preference. But research demonstrates that recognition of these certifications low, and persuasion power even lower.  3rd party certifications are an outward pressure to measure your internal commitments.  A more authentic strategy includes an internal perspective that positions the company from the inside – out. No mark required.

There are of course dozens of examples of corporations creating their own certification marks used purely for promotional purposes. And, while most of these are poisonous to CSR (and ultimately their creators), others examples create an interesting new paradigm.

When asked why Walmart buildings are not LEED certified, Jeff Rice, Walmart’s Director of Sustainability claims that their buildings are already more efficient than LEED certified buildings.  This aligns to their authentic corporate goal of reducing prices for consumers, and it is in lockstep with their intention to become the most sustainable company on the planet. As Lee Scott said, “sustainability and lowering costs are totally aligned.”

The critical difference here is between Conduct and Compliance (regulatory and cultural compliance are both currency today).  Walmart, like most large companies, is not without its share of both kinds of compliance violations and celebrations.

At the root, 3rd party certifications are needed because consumers do not trust corporations. But if corporations take the challenges on one-by-one, issue-by-issue (as Walmart did recently in beating the EPA to the punch by banning polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) from textiles and electronics), we will find that those corporations will reap all of the rewards promised by CSR: increased profitability, improved brand loyalty, strengthened market position, and alleviation of social / environmental concerns.

Rather than look to external guides, the first step in developing a strategy to move forward into deeper more Authentic CSR is to measure the ‘Authenticity Gap’ of your company – this is the space between what you say and what you do.  The more narrow the gap, the less friction and the fewer blind spots will exist in your company.  And a frictionless, blind spot-free company is a beautiful thing for both shareholder value and sustainability.

John Rooks is the founder of The SOAP Group and the author of More Than Promote –A Monkeywrencher’s Guide to Authentic Marketing.

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