Companies with some of the most tarnished images have transformed themselves from being viewed as environmentally or socially irresponsible pariahs to darlings of the media, the public, and even activist nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Other companies have accomplished this transformation in the short term, only to fail later on.
What are the key ingredients for a successful, long-lasting corporate makeover? To answer that question, it helps to understand something about the history of corporate attitudes on the environment and social responsibility.
Passion and Profit
For decades, entrepreneurs with passionate convictions about the environment and social responsibility have been starting privately held
new businesses that built concern about these issues into their corporate culture. At these companies, it wasn’t about marketing; it was about core values. Only later did the full marketing potential of their corporate culture become obvious. Companies such as The Body Shop, Stonyfield Farm, Ben & Jerry’s, Full Sail Brewing, Timberland, and Patagonia come to mind.
The founding CEOs of these organizations were willing to incur extra costs, and they did not have to justify these expenditures to shareholders. For most companies, however — especially publicly held companies — environmental and social responsibility revolve around following the law, making payroll, and ensuring optimum shareholder returns.
The Not-So-Good Old Days
From the 1960s through the late 1980s, environmental and social responsibility initiatives were a tough sell at the vast majority of businesses. And the corporate-image dimensions of these issues were almost entirely reactive: Keep in compliance, maintain a low profile, and conduct damage control when necessary. In those days, the strategy for most corporations amounted to defensive posturing rather than proactive positioning. The concept of purposely building an eco-friendly brand image or selling green products would have been seen as absurd.
The Evolution of Corporate Green
But starting with the 1990s, a series of events occurred that would change this intransigent strategy forever. First, the environmental debate started to shift from legislating new regulations to the longer-term concept of sustainable development. This gave savvy corporations a chance to raise their public relations game. It’s hard to put a positive spin on your company’s compliance with a pollutant discharge limit. But there is plenty of maneuvering room when portraying your support for the much vaguer concepts of sustainability and social responsibility.
Second, the environment was visibly improving, at least in developed countries. So the public was more willing to listen to industry talk about its positive accomplishments. They felt less threatened that the next Superfund site, smokestack, or landfill would turn up in their backyard.
Third, companies were finally getting their communications act together, hiring public relations consultants and proactively positioning themselves. For the first time, NGOs and activists were meeting their match when it came to winning the hearts and minds of the public.