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The Business of Doing Good

02.28.17
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Robert Strand leads the Center for Responsible Business at Berkeley-Haas, merging groundbreaking research with practical applications in sustainable business. Strand shares his perspectives on how the landscape of corporate sustainability is evolving, and the ways leaders can begin to implement measurably sustainable practices into their businesses.

A recent Forbes report shows that, when seeking employment, 60 percent of people under 35 seek a “sense of purpose,” preferring companies that steward socially minded values. Robert Strand, director of the Berkeley-Haas Center for Responsible Business, says that the demand and relevance for ethical, sustainable business practices have only grown stronger. He knows this because his work at the Center places him directly within the intersection of research and application for some of the most progressive organizations on the planet. Strand says the imperative for companies to develop or enhance their business models to solve social problems in measurable ways is only increasing.

A building block for talent pipelines

“When people ask me ‘what’s the business case for sustainability,’ I believe it comes down to talent attraction and retention,” says Strand. “I would contend that the trend for companies to embrace the ideals for social responsibility is more effectively driven by the competition for employees, even more than the competition for customers.”

It’s a perspective backed by several years of research, showing that a positive correlation between how a company’s values align with its impact on the world lead to greater employee satisfaction, attraction and retention. Result after result show, most employees want a sense of purpose with their work. It makes us feel happier and more engaged, and engagement leads to retention and ultimately creating better products and services that the world actually needs. Firms that embrace sustainability and social responsibility in a meaningful way help to ensure their employees have the opportunity to engage in purposeful activities.

“Those are the organizations that people want to join, stay at, thrive at, unleash their creativity and spirit to produce products and services that we cannot even imagine at this point. To the degree that sustainability and social responsibility is ‘just’ PR and marketing – it will fall short. The employees of these firms will become cynical and this ultimately results in the unimpressive products and services.”

Strand sees this mindset in action through his work with students and companies at the Center.  “We listen very closely to our students about the companies they want to engage with, and our students are demanding these purpose-driven organizations,” says Strand. “And, in turn when companies work with our incredibly bright students they think: ‘we want people like that.’ This emboldens companies to take steps to make their company more sustainable, in order to attract those very idealistic and talented people.”

Exemplars of corporate sustainability

Strand points to several leaders in this field, companies who have found innovative ways to adopt sustainable practices into their business models.

“I draw inspiration from leaders like Patagonia and Levi Strauss and from businesses in Scandinavia,” says Strand. “I’ve spent the better of the past decade in Scandinavia working with companies like Novo Nordisk, IKEA, and Volvo. These companies have sustainability and social responsibility so deeply integrated into their very being that they could not help but to produce products and services that customers would also deem as more sustainable and socially responsible.”

Oftentimes, an end result is that when companies positively impact their own “triple bottom lines,” they can also change their own industries for the better. “At the Center, we’re working with Levi Strauss who has come up with a very innovative new product design in which it has largely eliminated the use of harmful chemicals in the supply chain,” says Strand. “But to implement this they need their suppliers to adopt these standards, and to do that their competitors also must adopt this approach. So, at the Center here at Haas, our role is a platform to help bring Levis and these many other stakeholders together to figure out how to change their collective supply chain and ultimately help to shape their industry to be more sustainable.”

Getting “there” from here

So how can companies begin to implement a sustainable values-driven program into their organizations? Because every industry and business model presents their own unique opportunities and challenges to implement and measure impact, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, says Strand. Rather, when advising corporate partners to improve their social responsibility, start with one thing:

“Begin by fostering ‘a culture of candor,’” he says. To do this, leaders must invite critical discourse from their staff and stakeholders, to challenge the status quo of company practices, vision, and conduct. 

“Within every critique lies an opportunity. The very best organizations embrace candid, critical feedback as opportunities. I’ve been working with the Danish pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk, and they are an exemplar of this principle and they were called out by Forbes a couple of years ago as the most sustainable company in the world. That’s the first place for companies to start, embrace the critical voice, and change begins from there.”

The Center for Responsible Business at Haas has been at the forefront of ethical, socially responsible business for over decade, and one of many groundbreaking resources that Berkeley ExecEd leverages to develop leaders who “challenge the status quo” and act “beyond themselves.”