Australian sustainability gone wrong

"You guys got nothing to worry about, I'm a professional."

In some ways, corporate social responsibility programs can be a Faustian bargain. We've become accustomed to corporations claiming environmental and social awareness, but we still listen to their claims with a cocked ear. We need to see a concrete action plan. More importantly, we need independent and verified proof of an effective CSR plan.

That's why Mattel's recalls have been so damaging to their reputation. A twenty year relationship with your foreign contractors isn't enough anymore. Especially when your compliance program, while extensive and detailed, is self-monitored.

Nike learned that lesson a few years ago. CSR is no longer a cape to be thrown over your corporate shoulders, at very little cost and relatively little effort. CSR now demands an dedicated corporate infrastructure, a detailed reporting program, and carefully maintained relationships with non-governmental organizations and verification authorities.

Today, the problems fall to Woolworths - the Australian supermarket chain. Despite a report full of CSR programming, Green groups have challenged the company's claims that its premium paper products were composed of "Sustainable Forest Fibre." In fact, they have far harsher things to say about Asia Pulp and Paper, the source of the fibre.

As a result, Woolworths has had to pull the product from the shelves. They've also begun to redesign the packaging, to eliminate the questioned claim of sustainability. Finally, they've asked the World Wildlife Foundation to audit their supplier's claims.

And therein lays the problem. Most consumers would prefer to hear from a slightly scruffy and clearly environmentally concerned specialist directly and in advance, rather than waiting for one to be called in.

As soon as you have to start swearing that you're not cheating, you become the Horshack, Epstein or Dylan McKay of the CSR world.

The standards for a CSR program have shifted. Self-monitoring, in the face of increasing claims of health and safety risk, does not appear sufficient. It doesn't matter if your monitoring program is effective: it's the appearance that matters.

Especially if the claims of risk are coming from groups vested with more authority in the subject. Even two environmental specialists in a basement office can send a corporation running if their claims appear weak. Once again, in a crunch it's the appearance that matters.

h/t to PR Watch

[tags] csr, corporate sustainability, Woolworths, grocery, supermarket [/tags]