Last month Tesco announced it had generated almost 30,000 tonnes of food waste in the first six months of the year. In PR terms, this at first seemed a surprising move. The general corporate orthodoxy is: want to show you care about a social problem? Why not commission a poll that shows consumers care, too? Over the years the papers have been littered (sorry!) with surveys commissioned by brands showing how the average household throws away x, y, and z, but could be saving a, b, and c.
But proactively releasing statistics that confirm corporate culpability signifies an important shift. Fifteen or so years ago, this was the kind of story that a big supermarket like Tesco would want to keep quiet. It was the stuff of exposes. As indeed it was in 1998 when a TV documentary exposed the store for discarding tonnes of edible food.
Behind this apparent media masochism (a search for the Tesco announcement generates 255,000 results), however, is a clear change in mindset. Companies, recognising the need to win trust by being an active citizen in society, are foregrounding a more front-footed approach to corporate responsibility with an admission of culpability. Earlier this year Coke’s global CEO unveiled a new global health strategy with a determination to be part of the solution to global obesity. This was the first time the company had spoken out at such scale on the issue.
The Tesco waste story belies the need for a more honest (and strategic) narrative on corporate sustainability, one grounded in social issues that companies have the greatest capacity and perceived responsibility to address. For Tesco, waste is one of “Three Big Ambitions” within an overall strategy to “use our scale for good”.
The next step in communicating corporate responsibility is to campaign on it. And in fact to abandon the language of “responsibility” altogether in favour of the new lexicon. Not simply looking at reducing environmental and social impact but making a “net positive” (Kingfisher, IKEA) or “net good” (BT, RioTinto) difference in society through actions that restore natural capital, strengthen communities and improve the individual wellbeing of customers and colleagues.
And for shareholder air-cover on this approach, Tesco need to look no further for support than their arch rival Sainsbury’s for whom the “value of values” has become something of a mantra: “People are increasingly looking to businesses that give them value and values. We never believed that the credit crunch would lead to a values crunch – and we’ve been right” .
But this was not an embarrassing statistic dug up by campaigners attempting to push Tesco into action. In a proactive move, the firm took corporate responsibility beyond self-congratulation and aired its dirty laundry in public.
The disclosure represented a bold step for the high street giant, according to SAB Miller’s corporate affairs director Catherine May
May, who praised the move, says: “The move is an extraordinary one for a business like Tesco”.
“Big institutions tend to be far more risk averse and conservative in style. This was a risky strategy in that it was something very easy for critics of the business to use.”
The retailer released the figures as part of a measure to reduce wastage, in an attempt to get others to follow suit. But it is not as though Tesco is the only brand with a strong social message.
In the supermarket sector alone, Marks & Spencer forged a corporate social responsibility path with the launch of Plan A in 2007, while Sainsbury’s 20X20 plan launched two years ago with the aim of achieving 20 social and environmental targets by 2020.
Beyond that, examples include Ikea pledging to create more forests than it cuts down for furniture and Coca-Cola Enterprises being awarded the Carbon Trust Water Standard for reducing water use. However, the move is an intriguing development in how companies deal with the growing expectation that they must be socially responsible.
Fishburn Hedges director for sustainability Phil Drew points to the credit crunch as a key turning point in how brands have responded to the question of their social value. Bragging about shareholder return is more likely to recall the causes of the economic crash in the minds of the public, he asserts, meaning that brand engagement must focus increasingly on how a company is helping wider society.
“Proactively revealing your contribution to a social problem – in this case food waste – sounds counter-intuitive, but actually marks a shift in how companies regard corporate responsibility,” Drew says. “It’s a change in mindset, from simply communicating on sustainability issues to actively campaigning on them.”
In this light, the use of potentially damning statistics shows that Tesco has a huge stake in the issue on which it is campaigning. As Tesco’s group corporate affairs director Rebecca Shelley puts it: “Nobody buys greenwash any more. This is the way that CSR is going, and in the age of Twitter people know if you’re not being authentic.”
The public seems sold on the idea of corporate’s social purpose, but the City is taking longer to buy into the concept.
StockWell managing partner Philip Gawith notes: “Society’s voice is being heard more loudly, but I am cautious about the extent to which the City is changing how it takes these issues into account. These people don’t think along those lines as it just doesn’t fit into their model.”
But the money men do not call all the shots. As Gawith adds, “the difference is in the boardroom”. And there is evidence that the boardrooms are taking note when it comes to backing up the social rhetoric with hard numbers, even if they are not entirely positive.