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These were just some of the things that kept us busy in 2011. While some represent the changing marketplace, others are age-old struggles between activists, consumers, employees and corporations. Yet, they all represented the emergence of new forces at play in our corporate corridors.

Yes, 2011 represented despair for many – the jobseekers, the underemployed, the single parent, the shopper, the CEO, the trader – but with despair, as CSRwire’s CEO Joe Sibilia noted, comes hope, adaptability and often, solutions.

And it is at that stage that most of us converged in 2011.

Transparency: Is Business Ready?

Take, for example, the recent BSR conference held in San Francisco. My panel addressed a topic that is bound to get most of us shifting in our chairs: Sustainability in a Hyper-Transparent World. Ouch, right? Joined by executives from Oxfam, Intel and SourceMap, the conversation included several uncomfortable moments (I offered up Zappos as an example to the audience, citing that the company livestreams its all hands meeting in order to live its mission of “building open and honest communications.”) and featured several probabilities, suggestions, and potential solutions by a group that included lawyers, sustainability executives, CSR officers, reporters, strategists, entrepreneurs as well as nonprofit leaders.

“When you are increasingly naked, fitness if not optional.” – Macrowikinomics

That the panel attracted a full room of senior executives willing to discuss difficult issues like privacy, corporate governance and stakeholder responsibility is a start.

The C-Suite Headlines Sustainability

Till last year, while much was being written about CSR and sustainability, executives were largely absent from the dialogue. In 2011, this changed ever so subtly. Earlier in the year, Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn took the stage at one of the year’s most prolific conferences, the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship’s annual conference. He discussed the importance of employee wellbeing, organizational design, transparency (Kathleen Edmond was the first Chief Ethics Officer to start a blog on ethical issues in the workplace) and the importance of stakeholder engagement.

“The more you peel the onion, the more you realize there is to be done. You just need to be constantly excited about peeling the onion.” – Brian Dunn, CEO, Best Buy

At Net Impact, Nike’s Hannah Jones took the stage as did REI CEO Sally Jewell. BSR kept the momentum going by featuring Ofra Strauss, CEO of the Strauss Group, Autodesk CEO Carl Bass and Anheuser-Busch CEO Carlos Brito.

These chiefs weren’t exactly looking to gain brownie points. They were after all speaking to the choir in some respects and to an audience that for the most part, gets business and social responsibility. But what made each of them stand out was their honesty about the difficult problems facing us today – a first? – agreement on the role of business in adding to today’s social and environmental mess.

“In the last few years, business has lost tremendous trust in the marketplace. That we are GOOD now rests on us.” – Ofra Strauss, Chairperson and former CEO, The Strauss Group

Mea culpa, they all said. Followed by: Here’s how we are trying to change ways, rethink growth, repurpose missions and reengage stakeholders.

That’s a start.

Social Media Engagement: 140 Characters Rule

Despite all the naysayers of social media, there is no denying that for any organization that sells a product or service today, having a dedicated presence on Facebook and Twitter is a prerequisite. With engagement reaching never-seen-before proportions, even Chief Sustainability Officers are learning to communicate in 140 characters or less.

“We must see social problems as business opportunities.” – Carol Cone, EVP, Edelman

But several companies dipped their toes in active engagement by trying out new formulae: Best Buy released their annual CSR report by hosting a live webinar (that I moderated) with their Sustainability team and a parallel conversation on Twitter. As I quizzed them about the report, questions poured in from Twitter: What was Best Buy doing in the area of conflict minerals? What about human rights? Recycling? How about consumer education? And why the low diversity ratio of employees?

Squirm they did, admitting that the issues were complex they did, but answer they also did.

They weren’t the only ones though.

Timberland (that was acquired by VF earlier in the year) launched their new Communications portal, McDonald’s hosted a live chat on Twitter with VP of CSR Bob Langert, UPS held several chats during the holiday season from sustainable gifting to green packaging choices.

Communicating your sustainability story is an important cog in the wheel called trust and the choice to engage is no longer a valid option. How you choose to do so, however, will continue to differentiate you from your competitor.

Making Business Sense out of Sustainability

Several large organizations came forward in 2011 asking jobseekers and students applying for jobs in sustainability and CSR to understand how to relate their core competencies and knowledge to the issues facing us today, i.e., water depletion, carbon emissions, climate change, etc.

How can depleting levels of water relate to a professional services firm, for example, or a bank? Why must a software company invest in engaging and educating its supply chain?

Climate Corps: Creating Jobs & Savings

The Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate Corps program is one of very few initiatives that have managed to tie sustainability with business strategy and growth while creating jobs out of the process.

From placing seven MBA candidates as summer fellows in 2008, the program has quickly grown in popularity, placing 96 students at 78 companies in 2011. The fellows spend an entire summer working with their host companies on identifying energy efficiency solutions, implementing carbon management processes and helping diverse businesses embed environmental sustainability into their strategies.

The results: Millions in savings. While few get direct job offers from the Fellowship, most have had success finding jobs where their unique mix of experience, passion, and the ability to tie business strategy with sustainability, is appreciated and utilized in changing processes, setting standards and adapting organizations to a fast-changing reality of limited resources.

This is a start.

Organizational Design & Sustainability

Where does sustainability fit in your organization?

Everywhere, really, is the only correct answer, irrespective of where the chief sustainability officer sits. This, finally is getting addressed by what I consider a crucial component at any company: The HR and recruitment teams. In collaboration with IE Business School, I moderated seminars with recruiters, HR directors and organization design consultants on the value of CSR in candidate recruitment and retention.

We discussed the relationship between productivity, values, respect and growth. We heard from students who want to work for socially responsible companies and executives who are redirecting their organizations to instill a culture of ethics, responsibility, accountability and pride.

Mea culpa, most of them said. That’s a start.

Originally written for and published on CSRwire’s Commentary section Talkback on December 30, 2011.

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