Target Green

Agency Q&A: Brendan May

Brendan May is head of Weber Shandwick’s London-based global corporate responsibility and sustainability practice.

“My team of four advises a range of corporate and NGO clients, as well as working with other practices across our international network on projects, helping clients navigate the complex political and strategic landscape of green and ethical business issues. Demand in this area has grown exponentially in the past year, as CSR increasingly becomes a mainstream non negotiable activity, embedded in business strategy.”

Europe has long been ahead of the US in sustainaibility issues, but there seems to be a lot of momentum in the US market now. Why do you think the US has taken so long to get here, and what is driving the change?

I sometimes think the gulf between the US and Europe is exaggerated in fact. Although certainly the political climate has not favored sustainability in the past few years, some of the most credible and advanced global initiatives have been designed, led, and implemented by US owned companies. Although it is true that the market focus of those initiatives has often been Europe, where consumers, media, and NGOs alike expect nothing less. What has been particularly interesting in the US is the desire of companies to stay far ahead of government in tackling these global challenges. Initiatives like the Chicago Climate Exchange are living proof of that. To be honest, it’s little different in Europe - government institutions lag behind progressive companies. In the US, individual states have shown remarkable determination to embrace climate change strategies almost in spite of the Administration’s reluctance. The momentum in the US now is startling, both in the media and in the business community. Is is possibly being driven by a sense that with the political balance in Washington so altered, new expectations and demands upon business to embrace the vast opportunities of sustainability are inevitable in the near future. We are certainly seeing heightened interest from US companies in addressing these environmental challenges. And the high profile initiatives of political opposites like Al Gore and Arnold Schwarzenegger alike have stripped sustainability issues of some of their partisan nature. Most people now realise that there will be no stable global economy in an unstable global climate - and that has got business leaders thinking hard about what they can do about it.

What is the easiest thing a client can do today to kickstart a sustainable reputation ?

Firstly, mean it! In other words, get the substance right and the story will tell itself. Too many companies start from the position of seeking to communicate stories which are frankly not particularly innovative or credible. The key is to change business behavior and embed that change across every part of the company so as to make it ‘core DNA’. Then outsiders, be they NGOs or media (those key barometers of environmental reputation), will see the change, use it as proof it can be done, and move on to other targets. But you will stall if in practice you don’t really change.

What is the most important thing a client could do tomorrow to maintain serious green cred?

Always aim higher. Sustainability is a journey, not a destination. We can all always been greener. Set targets and meet them, then set new ones and meet those. Work with outsiders who can help you, as critical friends, and decide which issues you can do most about given your business impacts. If you are an energy company, your emissions are key. For a food company it may be more responsible sourcing of sustainable natural resources, such as seafood and wood products. The best way to maintain credibility is to practice continuous improvement. Nobody expects a business to become perfect overnight - but headline grabbing initiatives that try to obscure lack of real action are quickly spotted.

What NGOs are good partners for a solid green initiative?

There are a growing number of NGOs, domestic and international, who take the view that the best way to change business is by working within it. You can’t bracket NGOs into easy categories; they compete among themselves and some stick to what they do best - hard hitting campaigns. These are needed to force businesses to end completely unacceptable environmental destruction which they undertake on their customers’ behalf, but often without the customer having any knowledge of what is being done to produce their product. But once a company is persuaded (often out of fear) that they need to change, there needs to be NGOs that come in with solutions, such as independent environmental certification. These are growing fast, and there are plenty of examples of deep, solid partnerships between businesses and NGOs, working together to tackle environmental challenges. Any responsible company makes sure it is in regular dialogue with both types.

What is your agency doing to become greener?

Weber Shandwick’s London HQ was recently awarded ISO14,001 environmental certification in recognition of its policies and procedures to ensure robust management of a range of environmental initiatives. The company has reviewed its sourcing policies, changing all its printers making it much harder for staff to send reams of paper which are never read to the printer, as well as setting double sided non-color printing as a default which can only be changed for final copies.

All new equipment purchasing for Weber Shandwick in the UK is now subject to environmental criteria. Internal initiatives on recycling and waste have ensured much greater responsibility in stewarding resources. Weber Shandwick also switched taxi providers to one which offsets its carbon emissions. The company is currently reviewing its catering to ensure greener procurement, from water to coffee, and the food sold in the company’s canteen.

Globally, talks are underway with the Rainforest Alliance on a global paper sourcing strategy, and the company last year offset 170 international and domestic flights to its management summit, working with Climate Care—a UK company that helps with carbon offsetting—to offset the emissions generated by the flights: nearly 200 tonnes of carbon.

Although we would never claim to have reached anything other than the first steps of a long journey towards sustainability, we are incredibly enthused by the commitment of both our staff and senior management in driving changes which are not only right for the environment, but increasingly demanded by our customers. We will continue to use our influence over our own suppliers to make further improvements across our network and continue to expand programs designed to raise employee awareness of our environmental impacts and how we can reduce them in our day to day work.

What company (non-client) do you think is doing an exemplary job of promoting its green status?

Marks & Spencer (UK retail chain).

How should companies avoid the label of “greenwashing”?

Make sure whatever they are promoting is real, is not a piecemeal token nod to the green agenda (but is an icon for real behavior across the whole business), and that it is independently endorsed or verified by credible outside parties. NEVER over-claim.

What regions around the world are doing the most to advance environmental innovation?

It varies enormously, and it’s hard to answer because there are great innovations going on in so many countries, including the US. Some innovations are in marketing, others in technology. Some are government led, others business led. When I think of environmentally innovative countries I think of Sweden, Netherlands, and New Zealand. The European Union sees itself as a champion for the environment globally, although the records of its individual members are mixed. Now the challenge is to build innovation in huge emerging markets like China and India. Many initiatives are already underway. But as so often, the world looks to the USA for leadership - and is finding it more and more by the day.

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