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Building your CSR Strategy without the baggage – what would you do differently?

Establishing a new sustainability strategy at your company can come with plenty of baggage but what if you had the chance to do it all right…from the beginning.


  • No long term relationships that are inconsistent with your sustainability strategy
  • No long term contracts with non-aligned partners
  • No inertia built into your operations and decision making
  • No culture of fear for trying unproven strategies
  • No track record with reliable supply chain partners
  • No interference from a parent company

The opportunity to start from the beginning is usually reserved for small start-ups, but what if you had the chance to study an extremely large and complex initiative that had a well-defined beginning, middle and end.  Imagine what it would be like to maneuver without all the baggage, imagine what you could learn by looking at how to build an optimal sustainability strategy right from the beginning.

We have the opportunity to explore a strategy without baggage at TSSS on April 1st in Toronto Pam AM Torontoand via Livestream) – click to learn more.
Sport, Sustainability and Community Engagement: A Focus on the 2015 Toronto Pan Am Games

In business there are many legacy attributes that can stand between your company and greater sustainability.  How much easier would it be if you didn’t have to deal with any of it?

1. Relationships

Business is built on relationships.  Over years and even decades, casual business contacts can evolve into deep personal friendships that move well beyond the sphere of business and become firmly cemented in the personal realm.  If your company suddenly embraces a more sustainable approach that is in conflict with a less sustainable supplier or partner, it can be very difficult to terminate that relationship.

2. Long Term Contracts

Many companies require contracts – a good example is waste handlers.  When embarking on a more sustainable approach you might find yourself waiting it out before you can change a once seemingly benign aspect of your business.  For example you might want to alter your purchasing strategy so that your waste stream is more recyclable or reusable but your current supplier isn’t set up to support the change.  This scenario can delay and complicate your desire to move forward with your new strategy.

3. Inertia Built into Decision Making

Every company has a culture that develops over time. When things work they become engrained as “the way we do things around here.” But what happens when it’s time to change gears and the market demands that you move in a new direction?  For many companies a culture of change is simply foreign to the decision making process. Trying new things and looking at problems in new ways may not be a skill that has been nurtured or developed.  In fact, it might even be looked down upon by your colleagues and superiors. In this kind of culture, decisions are often made by looking backwards and seeing what worked in the past.

4. Culture of Fear

This picks up where #3 leaves off.  Some companies are unfamiliar with looking at problems in new ways simply because they’re too afraid to make a mistake.  They rarely take chances and in doing so they fail to cultivate any sort of progressive culture that questions the status quo and explores new ways of doing things.  If this is the way your business operates you may find that denying the move towards a more sustainable economy feels more comfortable than embracing change and this does not bode well for your future.

5. Solid Supply Chain Partners

Some companies have worked with suppliers who have done excellent work filling large orders for years.  A new and smaller supplier who has a more sustainable offering may be the sustainable choice but if they’re not able to satisfy your need for precision and certainty in your operations – you’ll likely stay with what you have. Those small start-ups that are building their strategy from scratch certainly won’t have to deal with this problem.

6. Parent Company

Many large corporations have operations in countries around the world.  When the vision is unclear in the parent company or it contradicts the culture of the subsidiary country it can be frustrating and confusing.  Some frustrations may include: reporting that focuses on the parent company and glosses over the work of individual countries, metrics that are not able to altered and that don’t work for particular countries operations and generally unclear or uninspiring messaging on sustainability.  This is a tough one – I’d be curious to hear more from people who struggle with this challenge.

For most companies, some or all of these issues can complicate a strategy to become more sustainable. But rest assured you’re not alone.  Now imagine what you can learn from a case study where the organization has the unique ability to establish its strategy with none of these legacy challenges.  Sporting events like the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games can provide that learning opportunity.  Check it out in person in Toronto or via livestream on April 1, 2015 – click for details.

Brad Zarnett is the Founder and Director of the Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series (TSSS) which is widely recognized as Canada’s premier forum for dialogue and problem solving among sustainability professionals. Each year over 1000 sustainability change agents attend TSSS events to exchange ideas, network and be inspired by leading companies that have integrated sustainability into their business practices. You can follow Brad on twitterLinkedIn or via the TSSS website

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  • johnindc

    I would add another one, Brad. I would get rid of things that ‘separate’ sustainability from the ‘rest of the business. This includes the language based on philanthropy and ‘giving back’ and instead adopting the language of business; so that classic terms about ‘doing well by doing good’ are replaced by the concept ‘doing it the right way, all the time.’ Integrate sustainability reporting into corporate reporting – demonstrating integration rather than the peripheral nature of your efforts. Lastly, if your leadership truly believes, as I do, that being a responsible corporate citizen is a business strategy that drives both short and long term success, link those measures to what you are doing, and report them.

    • Brad Zarnett

      John, thanks for sharing your ideas…to summarize your thoughts, it’s all about integrating CSR with the goal of long term profitability. Unfortunately for some companies this is still a message that doesn’t resonate. Why is it so hard to get some people to see the upside potential.

  • Chris Oestereich

    Building on John’s point, I would encourage folks to ensure that that integration becomes part of employee incentive plans. I can’t think of a better way to show you’re serious about the changes, and to gain acceptance/alignment.

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