Corporate Sustainability: Getting Leaders to Buy-In
Recently, I had the privilege of attending the Retail Industry Leaders Association Retail Sustainability Conference in Phoenix, Arizona. The three-day event focused on information sharing between some of the country’s largest retail organizations. Thursday’s evening session, “Pitching Sustainability to Top Executives” included a panel of top marketing executives from REI, Target, Costco and Schneider Electric. Below are some of the questions that were raised, and answers from each of the organizations.
Where does sustainability reside in your organizational hierarchy?
REI: Sustainability is integrated everywhere, though it's mainly focused in Government Affairs and Product Sustainability.
COSTCO: Sustainability is deep in our DNA. We are committed to providing tremendous value and extraordinary efficiencies. It is this mindset of doing the right thing that also embraces sustainability.
TARGET: Sustainability started in property development, then moved to legal, and now it resides in the marketing pyramid because it is becoming more integral to our brand.
What are the top three concerns that executives in your function think about every day? What drives you, and concerns you the most?
COSTCO: We are focused on maximizing efficiencies and economies. When we look at our property development, for example, we’re thinking of how to make the most out of urban redevelopment or brownfield redevelopment. Making use of sites like in this way exemplifies our company values.
REI: In merchandising, we’re focused on sales, in-stocks, and turns. Our first priority is the customer.
TARGET: We are always looking for ways to drive people into the stores. Also, how effective are our advertising and our promotions? We want to get bodies in the store, then deepen guest engagement and build loyalty.
How is retail consumer behavior changing? How are you reacting to these changes where sustainability is concerned?
REI: Retail is always changing, but recently the talk is focused on the “millennials”. This is the leading-edge customer group. They’re turning 32 next year—they’re not teenagers anymore. Marketing to this group is going to be about conversations and engagement rather than blasting messages at them. If you’re not acting responsibly where sustainability is concerned, your brand is going to be highlighted negatively in that conversation.
In order to get a project going, with organizations this large, it’s hard to find someone to get the ball rolling. Do you have tools to find that champion?
TARGET: In a company the size of a Target, you’re going to need a few champions in several different areas. Clearly it helps to make it a key company initiative.
REI: It’s always about making choices—picking this not that. If you can’t find any champions, there’s probably a bigger issue anyway. The goal should be figuring out which issues really matter and going after those.
COSTCO: The initiative has to be less altruistic, and more practical. There has to be a demonstrated value. It’s easy to get passionate about something when things make sense
When being pitched with a sustainability idea or initiative, have there been instances that have just driven you crazy? Did someone approach you in a way that just didn’t work?
TARGET: As we just talked about, we have a few primary things that are on our mind at any given time. Sometimes people approach you with a new idea and assume you’re right there with them. Before we tackle the idea, set it up for me. To engage me fast, connect it to what I’m already doing and explain the benefit.
REI: It’s okay to treat me like an idiot, because I kind of am on this subject! Boil it down to 5th grade level, and then start the conversation. REI is in the business of selling stuff and it bothers me when people talk about getting rid of all packaging because it’s wasteful. I’m all for minimizing it, and being smart with the materials, but our goods have to be packaged in something!
COSTCO: On my side of the design and development, sustainable initiatives play a huge part. Costco was involved in these initiatives before they were fashionable.
Some of my frustrations are with certifying things we’re already doing. We’re careful about how we source our building materials, how we monitor for sanitary sewer, et cetera. However, the need or the requirement to pay extraordinary fees to certify these drives me crazy. Why should I pay $250,000 for a little glass plaque?