Sustainable companies come in many forms. Traditionally they adhere to specific practices meant to benefit the greater good. They are businesses that consider the impact their activities have on the environment, society, individuals, and the company as a whole. They engage in responsible consumption practices and concern themselves with the labor conditions under which their products are made. They monitor carbon footprints and agonize over closed-loop production systems. They are businesses that, like trees, produce more benefit than they consume. However, this article is not about any of those things.
Can a company or product have a soul?
Most of us are aware of or are even loyal customers of sustainably driven companies or products that feel authentic, alive, and vibrant. Yet, we have also seen companies or products whose message of sustainability somehow feels artificial and hollow. Slick branding messages and lofty mission statements aside; some companies and products just come across as less than genuine. Although the feeling can at times be a little hard to define or put a finger on, I am not sure the root cause is quite so elusive.
I believe that most people can distinguish between the public ethics of sustainable business models and the overarching ethics that permeate the organization, people, and all. I call these second tier proofs Sustainable Echoes. Sustainable Echoes are the fruit and/or the accompanying support of the core business activity. They may not define the business but they can be the silent arbiters when it comes to public perception of the business model.
Sustainable Echoes come in two primary forms: profits and proof; how a company handles these two issues can determine whether the business is strengthened or undermined by them. Many sustainable businesses operate from the belief that what their business does takes place in a vacuum. They fail to recognize the deteriorating effects that second tier actions can have on the primary corporate goals. There is no middle ground and every sustainable business either reinforces its core message in these two areas or they invalidate it.
Profits: Simply put, if the revenue derived from the sustainable business is not used in a way that mirrors the business philosophy, then the company and its employees have merely shifted the inequity. Profits and salaries from any sustainable enterprise should be spent in a way that honors the intent of the business ethics. Anything less than a reasonable effort to spend those profits responsibly will reflect on the sincerity of the endeavor. Every dollar spent from the net revenue of a sustainable business model either confirms the core conviction or subsidizes other business models that are contrary to their belief set. It is difficult to understand how a company that claims to use sustainable practices can in good conscience enjoy profits accrued without considering the impact of where those profits go.
Proof: A well conceived, sustainable business model will have a transparent simplicity about it. It will not require loads of accompanying propaganda in order to understand it. The core message and intent will be operationally elegant and without pretense. If your business model requires a thirty-minute tour or a never-ending stream of literature to explain it, you might want to rethink what you are actually selling. Embellishing any message with misleading accomplishments or exaggerated influence is a telltale sign of a marketing strategy, and not a true believer in the mission. Some might think that this type of vicarious credibility will make a company look more capable, but I think it does tremendous harm.
The impact and public perception of a sustainable business model will to some degree rise or fall based on these two elements – profits and proof. I believe that most people want to support sustainable businesses and do well by others. They just do not want to be duped into supporting surface level benevolence.
If a company is truly committed to integrity in their message of sustainability, it might be wise to ask these questions. What are the echoes that reach the lives of those uninvolved with the business, service, or product? Do they mimic the core beliefs of the company or do they form a monetary and ecological tune of discord? Is your business truly about the integrity-based use of profits and proof?
Ron Demiglio is the President of Eko Brands, LLC. He is a Specialty Coffee industry professional with over 20 years of experience.