Five lessons from B2B’s most sustainable brands

Notebook

Which business-to-business companies are leading the way in sustainability? The Drum and leading global B2B creative agency Gyro asked our readers to find out. We created a shortlist of top brands that are prioritising sustainability within their company goals and put them up for the first ‘Sustainable B2B Brand of the Year’ award.

To get a deeper insight into how some of these brands are approaching sustainability and succeeding, The Drum interviewed four of the shortlisted brands – General Electric, Vodafone, ABB, and Salesforce.

Here are the five main takeaways:

1.Sustainability is not just a c-suite issue any more.

Traditionally, sustainability has been seen as an issue handled by the chief sustainability officer or the corporate social responsibility department. But now, multiple stakeholders are involved. At telecoms company Vodafone, Fergusson says the company is moving away from the “old-style CR of sustainability” and using relevant departments that can drive sustainability at scale.

ABB has a dedicated sustainability board that “meets twice a year” to agree on its sustainability objectives, while Salesforce has appointed key figureheads from various departments to embed sustainability across the company.

2.Brands are empowering employees to be more sustainable.

Vodafone recognises how passionate employees are about environmental issues, so the company’s UK group is working to engage 75% of its workers with environmental issues at work by 2020. Technology leader ABB also wants its employees to feel proud of working at ABB, so next year it is launching a communications program to capture its sustainability success stories.

“In Pakistan, we initiated two activities supporting the education of children using our technology,” says Michael Cooke, ABB’s head of HSE and sustainability affairs. “We want to do that to make our employees prouder of being part of ABB, but also to see if we can get other stakeholders to recognise some of the things we are doing and to carry this on in other parts of the world.”

Global cloud company Salesforce has an ‘earthforce’ program that raises awareness around energy conservation, recycling and other environmental issues. This enables employees to make connections with other offices and get involved in the “broader eco-system”.

3.Re-inventing business models to drive sustainability can lead to success, but it isn’t easy.

The companies that have worked smarter in cutting waste and bringing costs down have achieved great success in their sustainability efforts. General Electric (GE) gained a strong competitive advantage in the market by applying a top-down and bottom-up approach. But it has not been an easy ride. “We had to work hard on innovation and bringing costs down. It wasn't just about renewables,” says Deb Frodl, global executive director of Ecomagination at GE.

4.Strong leadership is a must for creating a culture of sustainability.

ABB’s Cooke said support from the top is essential in embedding sustainability into a company’s culture: “I'm not saying the leadership necessarily has to be hands on in this, clearly in a big company like ABB they aren’t. But they must be able to understand what sustainability means for the company and demonstrate that by making the right decisions in terms of investment.”

GE’s CEO Jeffrey R. Immelt says “innovation is at the heart of sustainability” and has made true of his words by making the Ecomagination sustainability program a priority within the company. Frodl believes it’s an imperative for companies to have their CEO as their champion for sustainability issues: “When you have commitments, it mobilises all the stakeholders. I think that's a real testament to some of our success.”

5.Brands are willing to partner with competitors on sustainability issues.

Teaming up with others in the industry to tackle environmental issues can be helpful. Cooke found “the size of ABB” and the “scope of things” ABB is involved in particularly challenging in tackling sustainability.

At Vodafone, Fergusson sees the benefits of working with competitors on environmental issues because quite often, brands use the same suppliers and expect similar standards in terms of living conditions as well as health and safety.

Not only is sustainability a top priority in business, it is a powerful component to long-term success. “What struck us most about this study is the extent to which sustainable best practices are clearly at the top of the boardroom agenda at some of the world champions of B2B,” said Patrick O’Hara, chief strategy officer of Gyro. “Companies like Salesforce, Vodafone, GE, and ABB are showing us that making the effort to reduce waste, become more efficient, look after stakeholders, and protect the environment in which you operate creates a stronger, more competitive enterprise. Thinking harder about the role and purpose of your business pays countless dividends."

The full report, 'The Drum Market Insight Report: Mind the Gap: How Marketers Feel About Sustainability,' will be available to download soon. The winner of ‘Sustainable B2B Brand of the Year’ was announced at the Marketing Can Change the World Awards, part of Do It Day, on Thursday, 10 November 2016.

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