Ditch the Standards – Sustainable Companies Should be Unique, Consultants Say

by | Oct 3, 2011

Companies shouldn’t necessarily meet sustainability standards but should devise their own “unique ethical proposition,” according to Rasmus Bech Hansen of brand consultancy Venturethree and Jens Martin Skibsted of design agency Skibsted Ideation.

Writing for Fast Company’s Co.Design website, Skibsted (above left) and Hansen say too many businesses find themselves trapped in a rigid, standardized form of sustainability – what the pair call a “me-too” model of responsibility.

They argue that international standards such as the ISO 26000 standard for CSR can’t help companies build a competitive advantage, because they dictate what a business – and all its competitors – should do.

To make CSR more meaningful, Skibsted and Hansen say companies should embrace their unique ethical proposition, just as great brands have developed unique selling propositions. This doesn’t just mean greening the brand or protecting the company’s reputation – efforts that are backfiring more and more as consumers accuse companies of green-washing. Instead, businesses must use their brands and their competitive advantages to tackle major environmental projects, not as a peripheral concern but as part of their core business.

Skibsted and Hansen say an example of this process is Vestas’s WindMade, a program to designate products manufactured with wind power.

But this initiative poses its own practical and ethical dilemmas, as pointed out by David Dornfeld of U.C. Berkeley. Already about 350 different environmental labels are confusing customers. And the WindMade label demonstrates only one aspect of a product’s sustainability. A more comprehensive label would indicate a limited expenditure of resources (including materials, energy and water) and perhaps even demonstrate a positive social impact.

In other examples offered by Hansen and Skibsted, GE’s UEP involves developing energy-saving projects, Novo Nordisk’s translates to fighting diabetes and obesity, and that of tech firm Intuit means providing free information to improve farming productivity.

A rigid notion of sustainability is not the only drawback to blind compliance with voluntary standards. In February, the ISO said that rogue certification firms were “awarding” the 26000 standard – even though, by definition, the standard is not certifiable.

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