In recent years, sustainability has become a popular buzzword — but it still doesn’t always have a seat at the strategy table. Until that happens, benefits will not accrue to either firms or to society, says C. B. Bhattacharya, a professor of sustainability and ethics at the Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh, and author of a new book, Small Actions, Big Difference.
In a conversation with Sandra Maro Hunt, managing director of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative (WSII) and Knowledge@Wharton, Bhattacharya explains why sustainability needs to be strategic to a firm’s business and how it can be orchestrated. Bhattacharya says that when a company defines its purpose, it will find that sustainability is built into that definition. And that it is a journey; the important thing is to get started.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Sandra Maro Hunt: Could you tell us how you got interested in this topic?
C. B. Bhattacharya: When I was an assistant professor at Emory University, I met Ben Cohen, the CEO [and cofounder] of Ben & Jerry’s [American ice cream company]. He asked me an interesting question. He said, “We do a lot for the environment and society. Can you help me understand if this helps us sell ice cream?” This was the mid-1990s. I found it a fascinating question. On the one hand, he was talking about how to increase sales and on the other hand he was talking about environmental and social attributes of a product driving sales. Nobody was looking at this at that point in time. I replied, “I don’t know the answer to this question, but I’m going to think about it.”
That started my transition to the field of what we now call corporate social responsibility or CSR. It was the turning point for my career. One thing led to another. There were several articles to be written, several questions to be explored. As I was researching for my last book, Leveraging Corporate Responsibility, I observed that corporate responsibility managers or sustainability managers in companies like Procter & Gamble, General Mills, Timberland and others were very smart, very good people, but they did not have a seat at the strategy table of the company. This struck me as odd and not good for the field. I’d found that it’s only when CSR is treated as strategy does it benefit the firm and also society. I started thinking about how can we on-board the entire organization into this journey of making our companies more sustainable. That’s what the book, Small Actions, Big Difference is about.
Hunt: In your book, you point out errors companies make when thinking about sustainability: one, that bosses delegate it to a single unit rather than integrating it throughout the entire corporate strategy. And, two, that boards believe that unsustainable practices can be solved quickly by change management. Could you explain how these show up?
Bhattacharya: There is a mistaken conception in large parts of the corporate world that sustainability — the well being of our planet and its people — is the next iteration of CSR. This is wrong because sustainability has to do with the survival of the company. It deals with every organizational function, starting from procurement to disposal. Where do our raw materials come from and where do our products end up? Every part of the organization is touched by the concept and actions that have to do with sustainability. That’s why I call it “conducting business through the sustainability lens.” Everybody has to be on-boarded. Relegating it to one unit and producing a sustainability report noting all you’ve done as a company and showing yourself as a good corporate citizen is not sufficient.