Wednesday, April 8, 2009

People-Centred Sustainability: The Gospel According to Roddick

It’s very cool to have a ‘sustainability’ section on your website. It’s where you put your ‘sustainability statement’ and write some nonsense about carbon footprints and turning off your computer monitors at night. Some companies really go to town in the ‘sustainability’ section with detailed information about their compost systems and half flush toilets. Good grief.

And then there’s Earth Hour. Pull the plug on some stuff around your office and the planet will reward you with a big sloppy kiss and increased revenues.

I don’t think it’s wrong although I think a lot of companies are so busy copying each other's green stuff that they've missed the point. I would just like to get back to the pure, people-centred, gospel of sustainability pioneered by The Body Shop founder, Anita Roddick.

Advertising has Bill Bernbach. Sustainability has Anita Roddick.
Read her book "Business as Unusual". I first read it in my graduate year at university after reading countless academic volumes on marketing ethics and triple bottom line audit reporting that was all theory and completely unworkable. Anita Roddick was living it out in dream-crushing UK retail.

Her unwavering faith in people, democracy and our role as stewards of the earth were not words of a businessperson. Yet she had a thumping retail empire that was taking market share of the giants of the beauty industry. She refused to advertise in paid media. She refused to prey on the insecurities of women about their looks and body. Business decisions were voted on and trading terms were designed to assist micro-enterprise in developing nations. Products weren’t tested on animals.

Tabloid journalists in the United Kingdom stalked and harassed Roddick to try and document her downfall. The Body Shop claims were revolutionary -the war cry was sensational. Anita Roddick and The Body Shop really were saving the world by caring for the people in it.

People-centred sustainability
The green movement seems to have turned sustainability into sandal wearing nature worship. Read any company website sustainability section and you won’t see anything about people. It’s a lot easier to put your paper in the recycling bin than be nice to your workmates (I’m speaking from experience here). Or wield power over junior staff when decisions don’t go your way.

Anita never abused her power, even as the company’s founder and major shareholder. Flexible working hours, ethical brand and corporate communications, 360 degree management reviews, employee share schemes-these should be the tools and language of sustainability.

We can’t get ‘greenie points for that’
It’s a point of contention how much The Body Shop tried to score greenie points versus how genuinely green the blood was that flowed through Anita’s veins. Her sale of the business and it's subsequent poor performance and loss of brand equity to me proves you can’t fake it.

Companies seem to have got meaner as they’ve got greener and end up spending millions on smoke and mirrors to try and maintain their image as whale-saving good guys. I see you through the smoke McDonalds and friends, and as social and personal media channels develop, it’s getting harder for the fakes to buy their way green. Your green audits might look nice in an annual report but your staff and customers won’t buy it. What are you trying to achieve?

Point your sustainability policies to people and communicate in people-centred language and your audiences will start buying what you’re selling. I would much rather hear that you have a wellness policy and daily fruit deliveries than recycled ink cartridges and double-sided printing. I would rather hear that you give excess stock to the local Salvation Army than that your executives drive hybrid vehicles.

Anita would have liked People Hour
Like Bill Bernbach, Anita Roddick had a magic that cannot be recreated and I don’t think we will see another like her. Sounds dramatic but I believe it. I think Anita would have liked Earth Hour. I think she would have liked People Hour a lot more.

"I am still looking for the modern equivalent of those Quakers who ran successful businesses, made money because they offered honest products and treated their people decently . . . This business creed, sadly, seems long forgotten.” Anita Roddick

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