The internet and rise of online engagement channels provide great opportunities for companies to connect with key stakeholders in exciting new ways. It should because the central tenet of an online engagement philosophy – transparency, authenticity, credibility and learning from your community to build a better, stronger, more profitable business – are the same strengths that make the pursuit of sustainability such a compelling business ideology.
Social media channels allow companies to monitor the pulse of their stakeholders and wider community. It allows for the harnessing of crucial feedback that can help build a more resilient business. Equilibrium will soon be releasing its report “Sustainability, Social Media and the ASX200: how they engage” which details an extensive review of the convergence of online engagement platforms and sustainability amongst the companies that make up the ASX200.
Corporate experience of online engagement in Australia is only a few years old, and aside from a few standouts, few companies in the ASX200 are pushing the boundaries. For the companies that are embracing online engagement to spread their sustainability information, they have gone through the stages of “whether or not to use it?” to “how to use it?” and are now addressing the next step of “how can we use it more effectively?”
Online channels are not simply “another” means to convey company information. In an increasingly connected world, the mediums available have the ability to link to a much wider audience in a two-way dialogue. Experienced users are working on improving and extending deployment and refining this dialogue to help drive business value.
Equilibrium has been involved in online collaborative projects with BP and Unilever that provide insight into the direction some of the top Australian companies can head.
Firstly, in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico disaster, in a scenario of serious navel gazing, BP asked for online feedback of its 2011 Sustainability Review from sustainability thought leaders. The aim of the survey was to capture external perceptions of the company to help drive internal change.
The second project was an online dialogue on sustainable living hosted by Unilever in April 2012. The “Sustainable Living Lab” was a 24-hour, global dialogue seeking solutions to some complex sustainability challenges. Unilever published an update on how it is progressing against the bold “Sustainable Living Plan” goals it established in November 2010. Unilever has stated that by 2020, they will:
- Help more than one billion people improve their health and well-being;
- Halve the environmental footprint of Unilever’s products; and
- Source 100% of Unilever’s agricultural raw materials sustainably.
On 24th April, Unilever released its first year’s report on progress it made in meeting its Sustainable Living Plan targets. The results so far are mixed. The report shows significant progress in many of the targets as well as real difficulties in others.
According to CEO, Paul Polman, the online collaboration, held on 25th April, “will help us make progress on meeting some of the big sustainability challenges which we are facing.”
Unilever brought together a cross section of people from governments, NGOs and businesses to contribute their thoughts and respond to ideas from others in order for Unilever to better understand how it can make further progress towards its goals.
Unilever’s commitments are wide and deep, and while it’s still early days as to whether consumers and investors will reward Unilever for its efforts, Polman is not shying away from the challenge.
“We live in a world where the population is growing, climate change is accelerating, water is scarce and 1 billion people are hungry. And another 1 billion are overweight. Companies,” he said, “can no longer sit on the sidelines waiting for governments to take action on the huge environmental and social problems that face us.”
Polman added there’s no turning back from the company’s commitment to sustainability: “It drives growth. It drives efficiency. It drives innovation…This is how we run the business.”
The use of online engagement to hear and learn from a wider stakeholder audience is part of Unilever’s strategy to improve performance. So, the question now becomes, which Australian companies are going to be bold enough to incorporate this type of online engagement as a mainstream business activity in order to generate real value for their business and provide important sustainability information to key stakeholders?
For more insight into Unilever’s commitments, see The Guardian’s interview with Paul Polman here