Sense and Sustainability: Corporate Responsibility

This is the third article in an introductory series that explores the importance of sustainability in the corporate world. The first and second articles can be accessed from the embedded links in the article.

Our first article in the series introduced you to the basic concepts of sustainability. The second article focused on the Global Reporting Initiative, Sustainable Development Goals, and how a company can maintain effective and targeted communications (‘sustainable’ reporting) with its stakeholders. Very often, this is achieved through the Company’s annual report.

In this article, we will be analysing some case studies of companies that have reacted positively and not so well to the sustainability agenda. In the corporate world, as in much of life, actions carry more weight than words.

Etiquette for Ecology
Headlines were awash in 2015 in light of the emissions scandal behind the operations of Germany-based, internationally-renowned, car manufacturer Volkswagen. The company was found to have intentionally equipped diesel vehicles sold in the United States with software that could fabricate enhanced results when the cars were being tested for emission levels. The repercussions were severe. Volkswagen’s stock price fell by a third, and the company fired its CEO as well as suspending some key personnel. In January 2017, the company agreed to pay USD 4.7 Billion in penalties, and six VW executives will face criminal charges.

Contrast this with the approach undertaken by another German auto-mobile manufacturer; BMW. In 2016, it was ranked by Forbes magazine as the number one most sustainable corporate world-wide. This was in light of its sound environmental record in minimising the usage of water and reducing waste, in addition to its ethical approach in paying taxes where due, and contributions to its human capital; as seen by a high employee retention rate and reduced disparities between the pay packages of the average worker and the CEO.

Treat Your Employees Right
The multinational technology giant Google is consistently ranked amongst the best companies to work for. And when it comes to women, there is no exception. Female employees are guaranteed a set of civic ideals that can help them break the ever-present glass ceiling in the technology industry and beyond. At Google, women are promoted at the same rate as men. Specialised peer and mentoring groups set up for women by the company, such as Google Women in Engineering, can assure female employees that they have a close-knit team of compatriots to discuss specific issues. Finally, working mothers are supported with a comprehensive paid maternity leave package, and the company is also open towards flexible hours and work-from-home options.

And on the other side of the spectrum, there are the much-maligned woes of transportation company Uber. A string of high-profile workplace harassment claims by women, along with reports of a highly sexist working culture, were exacerbated by the company’s reticence in addressing these claims and rectifying these misdemeanours. To add insult to injury, a further 20 staff were fired for allegations of harassment and discrimination between January and June 2017. In an unrelated incident, in March 2017, the CEO of Uber was caught on tape berating an employee who questioned him about low fares and unequal pay. All these incidents culminated with Travis Kalanick; the CEO in question; being removed from his position, a major shake-up of the company’s Board; and a very tarnished brand image and reputation for Uber from which it is yet to recover.

Morality for Better Companies
Following the victory of Donald Trump in the U.S. Presidential Election of 2016, the CEO of IBM, Ginni Rometty; one of a handful of women leaders at the helm of American technology giants; wrote an open letter to the President-elect in which she suggested potential collaborations between IBM and the new administration. Striking a blow to the brand, critics brought up historical allegations of IBM having aided the Axis powers (by providing them with punch-card technology) during the Second World War in the capture and internment of innocent civilians; as well as providing technology to the South African government in the 1950s to denationalise coloured citizens. In mid 2016, an attempt to revive the allegations was rejected by the US Supreme Court but the effect of this rhetoric on the brand remains to be seen.

And in complete contrast to this is the beautiful humanitarian efforts to be undertaken by multinational coffee-chain, Starbucks. The company issued a notice in 2017 to lay out a global commitment to hire 10,000 refugees to its operations by 2022. The company quoted that; in line with its ethos of striving to create opportunity for all and investing in the communities in which it conducts its businesses; it hopes that its efforts will ensure that the talent, experience and resilience shown by vulnerable populations will be a source of inspiration for communities world-wide.

Now that we have discussed in detail some important case studies highlighting both corporate responsibility and the eschewing of such protocols, it is time to move onto the next article in this series on sustainability. The article to follow will be a comprehensive outline on the key sustainability-related takeaways for corporate communications professionals.

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© Copyright July 2017
The ideas discussed here may be used, adapted or built upon for academic or commercial purposes provided due credit is given to Smart Media The Annual Report Company as the originator of this work.

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