Sustainable Innovation Strategies: the cases of Danone & Interface

 

Earlier Today, I attented the presentation of the book  “Sustainable Innovation Strategies – Exploring the cases of Danone and Interface” by Marc Vilanova, a Lecturer and Researcher at the Institute for Social Innovation at ESADE Business School, that organized the event, and Pax Dettoni, an independent consultant for social and human development projects.

The event was broadcasted live on the Social Innovation Institute website and on Twitter.

Here’s a summary of the key points of this interesting event, supported by some of  the tweets that were shared on the Internet and my personal comments.

  • The introduction speech was delivered by Antonio Fuertes, the Corporate Responsibility & Reputation Director at Gas Natural Fenosa, sponsor of the project and event.  One of the reasons companies like Danone and Interface are successful, he said, is that sustainability and innovation are part of their DNA, that’s been achieved through teamwork, by “touching the heart of their people”, by accepting that sometimes you have  to loose in the short term,  in order to find solutions to complex problems.  

 Antonio Fuertes made also  a very interesting point about innovation: what matters is not “what” to do but “how” to do it.

 

  • Miriam Turner, Innovations Director for InterfaceFLOR EMEA, explained how sustainability is part of the company’s core business, present in any innovation, in order to achieve its “Mission Zero” by 2020. This ambitious plan, in an industry that was among the main negative contributors to the environment few decades ago, is based on product innovation, a culture of “successful failure”, biomimicry, and a strategy of “Open Innovation”. 

 This is particularly remarkable, because if the outcome of innovation is often at the center of companies’ communication efforts & marketing strategy, the process that leads to innovation is usually a company’s best kept secret. By “sharing the innovations so they can reach their potential”, InterfaceFLOR is creating a successful ecosystem based on mutual trust with its partners.

Employees are at the heart of the strategy, as their employer is actively helping the internal entrepreneurs “to get out of the closet” and become Ambassadors, a program that supports the 2020 mission goals.

  • Franck Aimé, VP HR at Danone, shared the success story of a company that is a pioneer in Corporate Social Responsibility since its funder Antoine Riboud said at the beginning of the 1970´s that the responsibility of a company didn’t stop at the gate of the factory. Since then, the #1 world leader in dairy product has developed a 5 pillars strategy to support Health, People – its employees, Local Communities -particularly those who can’t afford the products, Nature & Life – the children.

A project that the company can be particularly proud of is their collaboration with Muhammad Yunus, the “father of microfinance”, in Bangladesh, creating a network of small production units, providing employment to women and ensuring that children can access to dairy products. This project was challenging for the company as it had to think “out of the box” to address challenges such as the size of the factory (typically a Danone factory produces 500 000 tons a day, there it was only 500), the milk (difficulties to get fresh milk) or the distribution model. In any case Franck Aimé insisted that this was not charity and that there was a business goal, even if the profitability was limited.

It’s interesting to note that the current economic downturn has not diminished the sustainability efforts of both companies, as they are convinced that sustainable innovation is an essential part of their business model.

 

  • Marc Vilanova closed the event with the presentation of the key findings of the book, that you’ll be able to access soon in a pdf version on the Institute website. Enjoy!

A successful sustainable innovative strategy requires:

Inspiring leaders that know how to engage employees and senior executive, and develop an organization that is both competitive and sustainable.

Leaders who are non-conformists, such as Ray Anderson, the founder of InterfaceFLor, and who are able to create a sustainable culture within their company, with sustainability being part of the business strategy, not just a nice accessory.

Sustainable products and services, with a long term product strategy.

An “innovative innovation” process.

An organization that allows “successful failures”.

More importantly: a genuine organization. Honesty and Transparency.

 

A sustainable innovation strategy is no longer a “nice to have”, it’s a must have.

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CSR, Warriors and Peacekeepers

 

“Every soldier should be a warrior first”…

“The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits”…

Norwegian Peacekeeper during the Siege of Sarajevo, 1992 - 1993, photo by Mikhail Evstafiev.

Before the first peacekeeping mission was launched in 1948, a soldier was often regarded as nothing more than a warrior. With 98,582 uniformed peacekeepers deployed in the world at the end 2010 (United Nations), the military role has shifted from warrior to peacekeeper, and soldiers have been given new tasks involving assisting local populations, training police, restoring governments, supporting rescue efforts or reconstruction.

The “Warrior Ethos” still has supporters though. General Peter Schoomaker, the US army chief of staff, expressed alarm in 2003 that soldiers in Iraq “considered themselves to be support troops — cooks, mechanics and supply staff — rather than fighters”. He’s wrong.

As for the second quote – do I really need to mention the author? – although it’s the title of an article that was initially published in The New York Times Magazine on September 13, 1970, this theory still has some strong supporters too. They’re wrong. The same way the military role has evolved to meet the needs of  the last century, the role of business has changed too.

In the aftermath of the terrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Akhila Vijayaraghavan, a Justmeans staff writer for CSR and ethical consumption wrote an amazing article: “Beyond Business, CSR: Help Pouring in for Japan From Companies.”

UPS, Bayer, Abbott Laboratory, Walt Disney, Microsoft, VISA… the big names, the multinational corporations, the very ones that should be applying without mercy “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits” mantra, “are opening out their hearts and their wallets” wrote Akhila.

“Even small businesses are pitching in” she added, writing that “The Extreme Pita restaurant in Riverside (sister city to Sendai) is donating a portion of sales. The Takami Sushi Restaurant in downtown LA is donating 100% of all restaurant profits. In Phoenix, Stingray Sushi has created a Recovery Sushi Roll for $12, all of which will be donated to the American Red Cross.”

Akhila Vijayaraghavan´s article reminds me how wrong my 2 opening quotes are.

 Support the Red Cross.

 

CSR: does size matter?

The BBC reported on Thursday a massive misleading sales in the UK. Nearly 15,000 people who registered with Groupola , a group buying website, to purchase an iPhone 4, “were not told that only eight phones were on sale at the discount price of £99”.

Most people were left disappointed, but the business consequently had thousands more people’s details available to it when sending out daily e-mail alerts. The good news is that the company, run by Marcko Media, has been censured by the UK Office of Fair Trading (OFT), and consequently had to apologise and said those responsible no longer worked there. The same investigation also revealed that an employee of the group, pretending to be a consumer, had posted on social media positive feedback and comments about the “bargain”.

Markco Media, created in 2006, is a startup company, that apparently doesn’t have the skills, the experience, the idea or more likely the strategic objective to develop responsible business practices. I’ve met many similar companies, especially startup companies. To be fair with them, the problem was not necessarily that they didn’t want to engage in responsible business practices but they simply didn’t know “how to” or failed to see the importance or ROI to do so. Most of them didn’t consider Corporate Social Responsibility a strategic priority, seeing it as a domain reserved to large companies only, that seem to be more under public scrutiny anyway. The recent CSR law in Spain, that makes CSR reporting “mandatory” for companies with more than 1000 employees, sends unfortunately the wrong message. In my opinion, CSR is not just for large corporations. Developing responsible business practices and taking in consideration stakeholder concerns and interests in the overall strategy is essential to any business.

So, what do you think? When it comes about CSR, does size matter?

The business case for CSR: the financial impact of social commitments & initiatives.

This weekend, as reported by JustMeans, US President Obama’s sent a clear message to the Private Sector: CSR Is Your Obligation (and It’s Good for the Economy, Too), prompting Stephen M. Bainbridge,  a Law professor at UCLA, to produce yet another “piece of evidence” in the case against CSR. According to the Author, President Obama, who preaches the false religion of Corporate Social Responsibility, is “wrong” because the “obligation of business is to sustainably maximize long-term profits for shareholder”.  Like many CSR opponents his claim is that a company engaging in CSR actions can only have two motives: being illegal or being insincere.  

Interestingly, on the other side of the bench, I came across the results of a study led by Alan Fustec, professor at the School of Economic and Social Development (ESDES) in Lyon, France, measuring the financial impact of the French Railways Company SNCF’s CSR social commitments and initiatives, more specifically the initiatives targeting the local community and the general public in the community.

 “While these programs are often considered as a cost only, the study shows a net gain for the company and the community,” says Professor Fustec. “5 million euro for the company, and 6.4 million for the community,” adds Vincent Bouznad, from the Department for Sustainable Development at SNCF.

Five major initiatives, conducted in the past two years, have been studied: the use of social enterprises for maintenance works and services, the presence of social mediators in trains, school presentations to teach young people the consequences of their acts (pull the alarm unnecessarily, vandalism …), the fight against exclusion of homeless people and the responsible purchasing of goods and services.

For each action, we  measured the cost (grants to associations, wages, working hours that are spent by employees of the company …), the gain for SNCF (cost-benefit analysis, reduced vandalism, impact on train delays …) and the gain for the community (lower unemployment or subsidies, impact of train delays on passengers, savings in terms of days in prison, greater security. ..), “said Alan Fustec.

A big surprise came from those results: they clearly demonstrated that the initiatives had a positive financial impact both on the company and the society. Besides strengthening SNCF’s public service mission and role in promoting social cohesion, the study, according to Vincent Bouznad also had a positive impact on the operations of the company itself: it contributed to raise managers’ awareness and encouraged them to identify new ways of doing business, therefore creating a “virtuous circle”.

Professor Bainbridge, just like many anti-CSR advocates, tend to forget that there are companies out there that are being sincere in their commitments towards the local communities in which they operate. If a company like SNCF, independently of its legal status and country can achieve positive financial outcomes through its social initiatives why wouldn’t it be the case for US companies? And who says that those actions don’t contribute to “sustainably maximize long-term profits for shareholders” as well?

Sustainability Awards: Doctor Knight and Mister Eye?

Dr C. Knight during the day. Mr. P. Eye at night? The Finnish energy corporation Neste Oil has received simultaneously, two very different distinctions. One for its “Irresponsible Corporate Behavior”, as a winner of the Public Eye Award, a “contest” organized by Berne Declaration and Greenpeace, and dedicated to highlighting the “most evil corporation of the year” from six candidates chosen by the organizers. The other, as a privileged member of the 100 World’s Most Sustainable Companies list established by the Canadian magazine Corporate Knights that “worked with a research firm to winnow down its list of publicly traded companies from 3,000 to 300”, based on financial performance and other criteria.

According to the Public Eye Award organizers, “Within the next two years the Finnish energy corporation Neste Oil is on track to become the number one buyer of palm oil and the world’s largest producer of biofuels”. Even today, they add, “under the misleading label “Neste Green Diesel”, the company sells “biodiesel” made from palm oil throughout Europe. IOI, Neste’s main supplier, has doubled its palm oil concessions as Neste is expanding its productive capacity in Rotterdam and Singapore”. The organizers explain that this a really bad behaviour because, and they’re absolutely right about that, “vast expanses of precious rainforest are sacrificed to the growing European demand for palm oil”. More importantly this production “requires chemicals that poison workers, villages, soil, water, fauna, and flora. The transformation of rainforests into plantations also destroys the habitats of endangered species such as the orangutan.”

In a public statement Neste Oil says it is “disappointed in the outcome of the Public Eye Award announced today and believes that it does not reflect the true nature of the situation. The company adds that it only buys “palm oil produced according to sustainable principles with a verifiable origin that is available” and reminds that it has” received extensive positive international recognition” for its “responsible approach from independent expert bodies in a number of reviews and indexes”. The most recent example of this being the Forest Footprint Disclosure 2010 Report published recently, in which” Neste Oil was ranked as the best oil company in terms of its forest footprint reporting for the second time”.

As for the 100 World’s Most Sustainable Companies list, Corporate Knight “tapped intelligence from the world’s largest sustainability research alliance to isolate the top ten per cent of companies from a universe of 3000 global stocks, which were then transparently ranked based on 10 verified indicators” such as Leadership Diversity, Carbon, Water and Safety productivity. The magazine also mentions that some “controversy research was incorporated into its assessment of each company to provide risk mitigation against companies with severe controversies that could be deleterious to share valuation.”

I’m not sure if controversy could be avoided regarding such a very sensitive topic. On the one hand, the risk is that the general public loses interest in those rankings and awards, and unfortunately, in sustainability in general, because of a lack of credibility of public and private organisms that monitor its execution.  But on the other end, public debate, transparency and critical thinking can help advance the cause of sustainability, avoid greenwash and window-dressing and ensure that companies achieving positive results on some specific indicators stop addressing the concerns of other legitimate stakeholders.