““What is your opinion of XYZ sustainability initiative?” is a question I do not enjoy hearing. If I criticize the initiative, I’m at risk of being viewed as arrogant; yet if I praise the initiative unjustly, I lend credibility to what may be a seriously flawed program.
Clearly, a framework and a process is necessary to analyze initiatives objectively. There are, of course, various categories of initiatives. When I served as the Divisional CEO of a large multinational company, my office was inundated with requests to support various initiatives. There were requests to support ‘awareness raising’ programs to inform the public, business and government about an important issue. Then there were ‘show of support’ initiatives, for example, signing a joint letter to the editor calling for action on climate change. And, of course, there were multiple requests to support programs in the local community (hospices, orchestras, parks, etc.). Those types of initiatives are fairly easy for a management team to prioritize for support or endorsement.
More difficult to judge is the broad category of ‘responsible sourcing and sustainability’ initiatives. The Ecolabel Index tells us there are 458 eco-labels of one form or another (of which probably 15% are in the textile sector). That’s a lot of noise to try to cut through. Which ones are legitimate? Which ones are worthy of support or endorsement? What costs and risks are associated with signing-up to one?
As a business executive, I was always interested in the risks of associating with a particular initiative. Signing-up to a puff initiative that required little ‘work’ on our end may have been fairly easy to do, but also ran the risk of having the brand/company attacked for greenwashing. On the other end of the spectrum, I did not want to commit a lot of time and resources to an initiative that wasn’t really going to change much for people or planet. I wanted to support initiatives that had the promise of achieving scale and impact. This line of thought led me to evaluating initiatives on two major levels: Legitimacy and Relevance.
Legitimate / Credible initiatives usually possess the following attributes:
- Created by multi-stakeholder interests (neither ‘self-declarations of sustainability’ by trade associations, nor idealistic activist campaigns by themselves are truly legitimate because they lack the endorsement of the range of concerned stakeholders). That doesn’t mean there is not value in awareness raising, but let’s be careful they aren’t positioned as sustainability initiatives unless they incorporate broad stakeholder support;
- Embrace transparency (on sources of funding, results, governance, scope of action, participants, etc.);
- Incorporate independent verification of results/progress;
- Collect and publish credible data;
- Report publically progress against targets on a routine basis;
- Led by inclusive, representative governance;
- Establish a ‘claims framework’ (with clear guidance on how to communicate about the work and progress of the initiative, as well as traceability and logo use if appropriate);
- Require behavior change for the benefit of people and planet. (If you don’t really have to change anything you are doing, can it be a legitimate and credible ‘responsible sourcing’ initiative, or is it just an ‘awareness raising’ campaign?)
That’s a good start on a listing of critical criteria to establish a legitimate initiative. There is an internationally recognized organization called ISEAL that provides additional clarification and a set of principles that credible initiatives strive to adhere to. Readers are encouraged to consult their website.
As stated above, as a business leader, I wanted the initiatives that my company supported not only to be Legitimate, but also Relevant to my business.
The relevance of an initiative is established by adherence to the following:
- Solves a technical problem for the company, e.g., tells managers how to source wood responsibly, or manage water resources effectively, etc.;
- Inspires the company’s employees and makes them proud to work for the company;
- Provides a legitimate framework to speak to customers about regarding responsible sourcing;
- Incites innovation (in materials, supply chains, product and/or market segmentation, etc.);
- Creates a ‘halo effect’ with external parties (press, NGOs, Trade Associations, etc.) so that the brand benefits from the association and investment in time and resources.
One final thought. I often hear, “Our company sources raw materials only from countries with strong legal and enforcement systems.” The problem with this is that (generally) legislation lags environmental needs, and is often not much more than an awkwardly constructed response to a crisis. Perhaps more importantly, major brands and retailers, when accused of wrong-doing in their supply chains, are not viewed as credible if they respond, “Our sourcing policies are all legally compliant.” It just doesn’t resonate with the public. The strength of legitimate initiatives is in their ‘additionality’; they go beyond legal compliance.
No sustainability initiative or certification standard will score full marks in every Legitimacy or Relevance criteria listed above. Nevertheless, I have found it a useful framework for evaluating initiatives that come across my desk, and invite others to consider it when asked to participate in initiatives, including the one I lead.“
CEO Better Cotton Initiative
This article is a reprint from the Fiber Year Report 2015, originally published in April 2015.