Category Archives: Insight

B INSPIRED EVENT REPORT – PART ONE

The Bridge theatre on London’s Southbank played host to a 600-strong audience for B Lab UK’s first B Inspired event on Thursday 10th October. Global circumnavigator, Fergal o’Nuillian, a geography teacher and explorer, opened the event with the poignant image of the earth rising in space.  He told a story about one of his students who against the odds, passed his geography GCSE. He set the tone for the event by reflecting that like the advice to his teacher from this young man, we must all learn to practise hope on a daily basis.

Fergal didn’t come alone. Students from City Heights Academy gave voice to his assertion that it is hard to be young at the moment. At his invitation, the audience leaned in and listened closely to a young woman in her school uniform – KatiAnn Barris Rocha whose spoken word poetry blistered eloquently against the expectations society places on her generation. The audience got to its feet in appreciation of her performance.

The first panel – Challenging Business as Usual was made up of Oxford University Professor and expert on corporate purpose, Colin Mayer; Alexandra Mousavizadeh, of Tortoise Media, Sophi Tranchell, the founder of Divine Chocolate and Chair, James Perry, Cook co-founder and man who brought the B Corp movement to the UK.

Colin laid out the historical context for our current situation: Fifty years of Milton Friedman economic theory and the primacy of shareholder value creation as the legal requirement and core purpose of business. He contended that the capitalist system is not fit for our current needs and must change to generate profits only for the companies whose solutions are benefitting people and planet. He used the example of Danish pharma company Novonordisk, explain how they switched their purpose from manufacturing insulin to eliminating diabetes.

Alexandra explained the robust methodology by which her new Responsibility 100 index has been compiled. She cited 5000 data points, 52 indicators, 27 of which are directly relevant for corporations mapping progress through an SDG prism. The Index is a window into corporate rhetoric versus reality, making it easy to see who has signed up to the UN global compact for example, and then analysing any resulting actions in what she called a ‘talk versus walk’ score. She defended the Index format because it ‘creates a race to the top’  and highlights gaps in data and performance. Perhaps the most sobering observation is that it should not be hard to find evidence of corporate contribution to SDGs but it is.

Sophi Tranchell’s contribution expanded on a core theme from Colin’s observations – ownership. She reflected on 20 years of Divine Chocolate – back then a model that drew a lot of scepticism that having cocoa farmers the biggest shareholders (44%) could ever work. That ownership has been key in diversification and mitigation for climate change because the farmers are closest to the issues and empowered to make the necessary changes. Sophi spoke up for the need for patient capital, long term investors and engaged consumers. Divine certified as a B Corp in 2016.

James Perry summarised that ‘business has the wrong operating system’, reflecting on how we think about performance reporting. Tomorrow’s economic rule book needs new rules of the game. We need a legal system that recognises the role of owners (shareholders) as trustees. Change comes quickest when companies are required to report. Regulatory requirements such as publishing pay differentials or ensuring the living wage is paid all through the supply chain would be helpful.

Event report: Refugees: Changing the Conversation to Untapped Talent and Greater Inclusion

 

On 16 October we heard from three speakers with very different routes into the world of refugees:

Paul Hutchings, Co-Founder of Refugee Support, a former market research agency boss who gave it all up to focus full time on running a charity providing aid with dignity; Dina Nayeri, author and a child refugee at the age of eight, and Mike Butcher, editor at large of Techcrunch, chronicler of technology entrepreneurs and founder of Techfugees. The insights they gave us in their conversations and story telling fell into three main take-aways:

View full report here. 

Business as a force for good – are we at a tipping point?

Business as a force for good – are we at a tipping point?

On 19 August, the Business Roundtable, a group of leading CEOs of the largest corporations in the USA, agreed a new purpose beyond creating value for shareholders. The ‘Statement on the purpose of a corporation’ was signed by almost 200 members, including Jeff Bezos (Amazon) and Tim Cook (Apple). This move signals a significant shift away from the short term thinking fuelled by quarterly reporting in the capital markets. It enables CEOs to balance the interests of all stakeholders with those of shareholders. This means that employees, suppliers, the wider community, the environment and society at large can be factored into board-level decision-making. What’s interesting is that among all of the brands tuned into consumer pressure, the Round Table is currently led by Jamie Dimon, CEO of the financial institution, JPMorgan Chase.

The founders of B Lab penned a response in FastCompany inviting the Roundtable CEOs to become B Corps, pointing out that the movement they founded a decade ago offers CEOs a tried, trusted and practical route to achieving these goals, aligned with the SDGs. In order to be certified as a B Corp, organisations complete the B Impact Assessment (BIA). This free online tool is available to view at www.bimpactassessment.net. It helps build more balanced businesses by asking questions about 5 key areas of operation: Governance, workers, supply chain, community, and the environment, moving beyond certifying products, to certifying the ethics and actions of entire organisations.

These events are playing out against a dramatic backdrop. From 20 -27 September businesses are being encouraged to down tools and take to the streets to protest for the accelerated end of fossil fuels in a Global Climate Strike. The web site features young activist, Greta Thunberg with the line ‘If not you, who, If not now, when?’

Visit the Extinction Rebellion web site and you are greeted with ‘International Rebellion begins Monday 7 October’ In the year since Greta Thunberg stopped going to school to protest against the lack of Government action on the Climate Emergency, different groups have mobilised 1.6 million students across the world to strike for the same cause. #FridaysForFutures has become a globally active movement.

The actions of the Business Roundtable, B Lab’s response, the press coverage it has generated and the many events that are planned (eg. B Inspired in London in October) plus all of the communication about the Global Climate Strike are still just a handful of initiatives among so many that are underway around the world. It really does feel as though we are set for a new order of business. But what does that mean for corporate reputation?

The comments on the Business Roundtable statement and the resulting press coverage have focused on the need for deeds not only words. Anyone who works in corporate communications will understand that for a company and its CEO, signing up to something as significant as the end of shareholder value creation primacy is, in fact, a big deal. Companies know that their stakeholders are listening and will hold them to account. It feels wrong to characterize this move in terms of winners and losers because the stakes are high for everyone. But there is nevertheless a sense of expectation in the air that it is time for companies who want to be out in front to do more than advocate for change.  It’s time for businesses to take action and be the change that the world needs.

INFLUENTIAL VOICES IN UK WASTE MANAGEMENT 2019

INFLUENTIAL VOICES IN UK WASTE MANAGEMENT 2019

With the ‘Attenborough effect’ propelling waste management companies into the public spotlight, it’s never been such a critical time for these companies to shape the direction of policy and commercial discussions.

Gong Communications recently highlighted 12 of our favourite waste management organisations in the UK based on their approaches to communications between 2018 and 2019. Our ‘Influential Voices in Waste Management 2019’ paper is a concise, 7-page analysis of which companies are excelling in their proactive engagement. Taking an outside perspective, focus areas include companies’ commentary on news and key issues, thought-leadership initiatives as well as their on-and-offline presence.

Our checklist also provides some pointers on how companies can turn the growing pressure to demonstrate innovation and adaptation into an opportunity to showcase best practice, build reputational resilience and stimulate supply chain collaboration.

 

Event report: Diversity & Inclusion for asset managers

 

D&I for fund managers was our 6th event focused on the link between reputation and culture. This time we focused on the asset management community and private equity in particular with a panel representing the views of investors and advisors who believe that the time has come for firms to focus on their own D&I, not only that of their portfolio companies.

From a reputation perspective we believe it is important for firms to communicate to stakeholders that they are acting on D&I, even if they are currently far from perfect. Better to convey the message that your firm is an engaged improver than a head-in-the-sand denier. As the FRC articulated in its report on the state of FTSE reporting, ‘At one end, a sophisticated understanding of diversity as the best utilisation of talent and a significant strategic issue is evident. At the other end, a lack of engagement, leading to a minimalistic, ‘tick-box’ approach.’ From our perspective, there are plenty of ways to get the message out there as well as to engage on D&I issues internally.

The purpose backlash and why it’s important

 

Check out social media, flick on the radio or read a business publication and you will find new evidence every day that the global apocalypse is coming, whether it’s the disappearance of insects, or the melting of the glaciers. It’s basically all terrifying.

Companies that can articulate what they are doing to help mitigate the long list of threats to our very existence: climate change, plastic and food waste, poverty, etc. are quietening their activist shareholders and cheering us all up in the process.

As part of this effort to line up on the side of the hopeful, many more businesses are finding and communicating their ‘corporate purpose’ which seems to be motivated by 3 main objectives:

  • Build brand loyalty among customers
  • Attract and retain talent – particularly ‘millennials’
  • And post ‘that’ BlackRock letter from Larry Fink; keep activist investors happy

But it’s not always easy to summon up a ‘purpose’ that people are going to buy into if you haven’t ever got beyond ‘market share’ or some other financial measure. Let’s face it, most businesses in this tricky global economy (and in the Brexit plagued UK) deserve a parade for simply staying afloat.

This would not be so bad except for the fact that there is a cohort of entrepreneurs globally founding companies that have purpose baked into their core business models. Everyone has their favourite examples, some of mine are TOMS (a pair of shoes donated for every pair purchased),  ToastAle (beer made from bread waste), InspiraFarms (off-grid cold chain) and Global Parametrics (insurance inclusion for poor rural farmers) –  I could go on to list many amazing companies innovating in areas such as renewable energy, sustainable food sources, sustainable farming, I’m sure you get the picture.

The issue here is that anyone who cares about the plight of the planet and our species survival (not to put too fine a point on it), naturally wants to spend their days working for an organisation that is part of the solution, not adding to the problem.

So there really is an ungainly tussle going on for the brightest and most engaged new workers.  Alongside this pressure is the knowledge that customers, business or consumer, also naturally want to reward ‘good’ companies with their patronage. And if that wasn’t enough, the largest asset owners are choosing investment managers based on their ESG credentials – basically how well they pay attention to Environmental, Social and Governance impacts.

Movements like B Corp are approaching a tipping point with a globally understood process for identifying ‘good’ companies through a detailed certification system. Now that some of the biggest (and coolest) companies are on board (Danone, Natura, Patagonia etc.), the sceptics are coming around. Or are they?

Anand Giridharadas, author of the book, Winners Take All  sets out a useful challenge to the notion of corporate do-gooding that also helps separate the different ways companies approach the issue.

His thinking is that corporate philanthropy and purpose are often more about the optics than any real systemic change to the way companies have always behaved to their various stakeholders. His pushback is that rather than ‘purpose’ as an afterthought, (supporting youth initiatives for example), if companies paid their lowest paid workers more, or eschewed zero hours contracts, families would be better placed to look after their dependents without corporate philanthropy.

His is not a lone voice. At the World Economic Forum in January, Dutch Historian, Rutger Bregman departed from the expected script on a TIME panel, noting how people in Davos talked about sustainability but flew there in 150 private jets and raised issues on participation, justice, equality and transparency, but “nobody raises the issue of tax avoidance and the rich not paying their share.”

Speaking truth to power is an essential part of advising on corporate purpose. It’s not OK to exploit one stakeholder group, like squeezing suppliers for 90-day payment terms, and then making a big song and dance about a campaign to support entrepreneurs. That amounts to robbing from Peter to make a very public self-serving gesture to Paul. It’s also going to end in tears because the very people that companies are seeking to impress (the bright young things and loyal customers) will pretty quickly catch a whiff of this reputational disconnect and opt out.

The corporate conscience realm of CSR (corporate social responsibility) and corporate philanthropy
(giving some of the profits back to good causes) – are gradually yielding to a more holistic practice given a label in financial circles of ESG – a way of measuring the positive impacts that are created by the business.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when ESG standards translate into financial incentives, more senior executives start to sit up and take notice. In September last year, the FT reported that Danone was the first multi-national corporation to tie its risk rating to its cost of capital. Global ratings agencies (like Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s) are now accepting B Corp certification as due diligence of a high standard of ESG performance, acknowledging that it will lead to a business being genuinely more sustainable in the long term. As a result, the piece noted a €2bn Positive Incentive Loan (PIL) issued by Danone in February 2018 attracted a discount – or put more simply, Danone was rewarded for its B Corp commitments by paying less for its credit.

The last word on purpose has to go to the SDGs – the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which have helped create a consistent global framework for action. What’s important about movements like B Corp and the SDGs is that they are galvanising business leaders and entrepreneurs around the stuff that’s really important. In the midst of all these efforts to contribute positively, it is important to look for signs that companies are balanced in their commitments and not jumping on a purpose bandwagon. But a note of caution, choose wisely – we don’t have enough time to sit back and see how this plays out, there’s just too much at stake.

Narda Shirley is Founder & MD of London and Nairobi based Gong Communications and a B Corp Ambassador.

This article was first published by the IPRA https://www.ipra.org/news/itle/itl-312-corporate-purpose-why-the-backlash-is-important/

THE CONSIDERATE WAY TO DO BUSINESS – B CORP STYLE

THE CONSIDERATE WAY TO DO BUSINESS

B CORP STYLE

By Nikki Francis-Jones, Director, Gong Communications

It’s a requirement for B Corps during certification to “consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment”. Few would argue that people are the very core of a thriving business; attracting and retaining the right talent not only means doing work with like-minded colleagues that is purpose driven but it also means working with people externally who are similarly socially conscious. We experienced first-hand the oft mentioned B Corp spirit of collaboration during a recent website project.

Introductions first: Gong Communications was among the first UK communications agencies to achieve certification in 2017. Last year we were made Best for the World Honorees (Workers), our MD, Narda Shirley, is one of 18 B Corp Ambassadors in a new UK programme and our Nairobi team were delighted to attend the October launch of B Labs in Kenya.

Yep. We’re proud to be a B Corp. It has led to new colleagues, new networks and new business. There’s something about cooperating with like-minded people that makes work seem less like, well, work. Fellow B Corp, Resource Futures, which enables clients to positively manage material resources, found us through the network, and developing their new website was our first professional B Corp collaboration. And the experience has only deepened our enthusiasm to work with more B Corps. Project managing a web build necessitates a fair degree of back and forth particularly in a multi stakeholder set up. The consideration and efficiency shown by the Resource Futures team has catapulted them to the top of our ‘best practice web build leader board’ or it would have done if there was one! Deadlines were adhered to, questions were gathered in a list before sharing, well-thought out feedback was collated internally first then clearly delivered in comprehensive responses (rather than a flurry of 15 different opinions on 15 different emails for us to decipher and diplomatically referee – it happens). Payments were made on or ahead of time. The stand out adjective here is Consideration. The B Corp spirit is Considerate. Which nicely ties in with our values too. The smooth running of the build was no mean feat given that two of the team members worked flexibly (Considerate employers). We were delighted to work with an organisation that has protecting and preserving our planet at its heart and with a team as mindful of our time constraints as suppliers as we were of theirs as clients. More please!

Each client journey varies but for anyone reading this who is considering a new web build or a refresh for your organisation, here are a few tips to getting started:

1. Think big picture. Ideally your website should be aligned to your communications strategy. All of your marketing communications needs to be joined up. Brochures, trade show booths, business cards and social media etc. need to be mutually reinforcing and designed to support your business goals.

2. What is the purpose of your website? Do you want it to be an online brochure, act as a sales funnel or something more interactive? It’s important to think about this upfront as it’ll affect the build process (and cost).

3. Embarking on a new website or a refresh can be a great way to engage employees behind a fresh organisational vision. You may want to ask your staff to suggest websites in your sector they like the look of and why, to generate interest in your new site. However, it’s advisable to limit the number of people in the actual development process to a small team otherwise finding consensus can be a challenge and deadlines might not be met.

4. Right at the start, once the domain name has been registered and hosting organised, start focusing on security and getting the right certificates in place, if you haven’t already, or, your web build partner can help you with this.

5. Consider what kind of Content Management System (CMS) you want to use? WordPress remains one of the most user-friendly and cost-effective options and it’s possible to scale WordPress and build it up in stages when budgets grow.

6. Your website should reflect your organisation’s personality. Think ahead and, if possible, commission some of your own photography, illustration or animation to ensure your website stands out from the crowd.

7. The style and tone of the words also need to accurately mirror your ethos. If you are developing your own content make sure you do your search engine optimisation research first.

8. Allow enough time. It’s easier to work out the flow of the website when all elements are considered so agree your site map before starting any coding. Adding sections later can delay the process and blow the budget. As a guide, from concept to going live, we can deliver a simple scrolling website in five to six weeks. However, sometimes getting internal approvals for concepts and text take longer, so 9 to 12 weeks is a more realistic timeframe.

You can view our Creative Portfolio here.

FROM LONDON TO NAIROBI: EXPLORING THE BOUNDARIES OF COMPANY CULTURE

FROM LONDON TO NAIROBI:

EXPLORING THE BOUNDARIES OF COMPANY CULTURE

By Malini Parkash, Account Manager, Gong Communications

Google’s global employees (called ‘Googlers’) are encouraged to share what makes them ‘Googley’. They actively reflect on how they identify with Google’s culture as owners, not receivers. This insight was shared by Dorothy Ooko, Google’s PR lead for Africa; guest speaker at Gong Kenya’s recent Cultural Capital event held in Nairobi. Fellow speaker Chris Harrison, Africa partner at The Brand Inside, discussed the importance of defining, communicating and measuring culture.

Observing this event while on secondment to Kenya from our UK office, what stood out for me was the lively Q&A amongst the 50 attendees – a rich discussion around the possibility of a borderless culture. A concept viewed as highly appealing by those in the audience working for international organisations with HQs overseas.

The benefits of having a strong company culture are well documented and include loyalty, retention of talent, lack of conflict, and high levels of engagement (Harvard Business). If an organisation can establish a purpose that determines its general direction of travel, then its culture will govern everyday decision making. This is crucial for companies that operate in multiple jurisdictions. When the overarching company culture is the guiding force, whether you are in Kenya, Ghana, London or New York, the brand experience, both for employees and customers, well communicated, should feel the same, while also allowing for local cultural expression.

How this looks will vary but from a comms perspective, a key route is the uncovering of moments that shine a light on employees who are living the company culture across borders: through case studies, personal testimonies or visuals. What it can do when people don’t have physical proximity is create opportunities to build connections and reinforce values and behaviours.

Strong cultures create employees who are brand ambassadors, proven to help with talent acquisition and retention. Recent Gallup research showed that employees with a strong connection to their organisation’s culture show higher levels of engagement and are more likely to refer friends to their company.

Our Kenya and UK teams work collaboratively on pitches and briefs as required, sharing ideas and best practices. But Gong Kenya has its own flavour, which originates as much from the personality of its team members as it is shaped by its clients and its surroundings. Based in a dynamic co-working space, Ikigai (the Japanese term for ‘a reason for being’), that unites communication specialists, founders of VC start-ups and East African NGOs, the feeling of opportunity and enthusiasm for what can be achieved is palpable.

Doing business in developing economies such as Kenya, while not without challenge, is getting easier as evidenced by The World Bank’s latest Doing Business report that saw Kenya move 19 places higher in the global rankings to 61, earning it a place among the 30 most improved economies in this year’s Index. The forward momentum in the city is evident, with several roads and new infrastructure projects currently underway, alongside towering office and accommodation blocks sprouting up in all corners of the burgeoning city. Amongst them, Gong Kenya client Garden City, one of the earliest mixed used developments – a flagship real estate project by Actis along Thika Superhighway, combining commercial offices, residential property and an international shopping mall in one design, with plenty of green outdoor spaces.

Albeit not quite Googler scale (yet!), Gong’s employees (so-called Gongers) embrace a core set of values, expressed in the four Cs: Considerate, Curious, Courageous and Connected, and adherence to these values transcends geography. Through the warm welcome I received from the team: their enthusiasm to introduce me to their friends and family and to show me the wildlife that surrounds the city as well as their commitment to go above and beyond to deliver excellent client services. The trip made me eager to return to Africa and further encourage the depth of collaboration between offices that generates fantastic results for clients.

From foundations to futures – what building an orphanage in Ghana taught me about stakeholder relationships

 

FROM FOUNDATIONS TO FUTURES

WHAT BUILDING AN ORPHANAGE IN GHANA TAUGHT ME ABOUT STAKEHOLDER RELATIONSHIPS

James Deacon, senior account manager, Gong Communications

There’s a lake in Ghana called Lake Volta, it’s the largest man-made lake in the world. It lies along the Greenwich meridian just six degrees above the equator. Completed in 1965, it displaced 75,000 people and flooded some of Ghana’s largest forests. Nowadays, its hydroelectricity powers most of Ghana, Togo and Benin, whilst its shores play host to makeshift huts and markets servicing the largest fishing trade in the country. It’s a beautiful scene to witness surrounded by breath-taking natural beauty, but sadly also reflects a life of limited opportunity for the most vulnerable of children.

Fishing can prove difficult when you have an underwater forest, and the perceived best way to solve this is to send young boys, usually less than 10 years of age down to untangle the nets. There are currently over 10,000 child slaves trapped in forced labour on the lake (International Justice Mission), suffering from malnutrition, physical abuse and with no access to education. They’re often sold for as little as 75 Cedis (£12 GBP) by desperate families looking for a way out. Unfortunately, this doesn’t gain much media attention, so after spending a month in Ghana in 2013, already in love with local hospitality and the discovery of how fresh mangoes actually taste, I started the ball rolling on a project to help children who end up in this situation.

Now a registered charity in England and Wales, Holy’s Home for Children sits in a village called Kwahu Nteso in the Eastern Region of Ghana. Standing inside the completed dormitory last Easter, it was hard to believe that just two years ago this was a piece of land, some vague foundations, and a slightly mad idea to build a home for orphans in the region.

Two years ago was also my first day at Gong. The timing was serendipitous as the company had just introduced a new democratic selection process for its CSR projects. This comprised of a Dragon’s Den style pitching session to my brand-new colleagues, a slightly daunting but encouraging opportunity.  However, there was no need to persuade my colleagues of the development needs of sub-Saharan Africa; the company has been active in West Africa for years, has an office in East Africa and has since been shortlisted for two specialist agency awards for communicating sustainable development in emerging markets. Winning the pitch resulted in a monthly donation and counsel from Gong enabling the charity to plan more effectively its construction schedule. Over the past 18 months, more than 25 labourers and six local suppliers from across the immediate villages have been employed and have worked incredibly hard to finalise the two-storey structure that now stands proudly upon the hill (with the best view possible!). We’ve built what will be a financially self-sustainable enterprise by the purification and selling of clean drinking water – locally known as ‘pure water’, then giving children the chance to reach their full potential, attend school daily and live away from danger in a safe and loving environment. Once all donation targets are met, we’ll be looking after up to 30 children by Spring 2019.

In retrospect, none of this would have been possible without stakeholder relationships. It’s a term we hear most days if you’re in agency world, whether in new business proposals, campaign plans or perhaps a rationale to a client for why something didn’t quite go the way it was supposed to. Whether it was sourcing timber from local suppliers or drafting in legal advice during the charity commission registration process, every person we’ve encountered and persuaded, whether paid or voluntary, has been crucial to making this small charity functional.

Building solid networks and relationships with people on the ground in Ghana has been crucial in enabling the development of the charity. In the UK, Holy’s Home has been lucky enough to have the support of a network of passionate volunteers called Challenge12, who have so far among them sent a rocket in to space, climbed Everest, attempted to swim the English Channel, walked the Camino de Santiago, kayaked Lake Windermere (twice), stood on the wings of a plane (mid-flight), and escaped an underwater helicopter crash simulator that apparently is character building. I’ll leave that there.

Each of these volunteers is a stakeholder, aligned firmly to the same purpose. What I’ve learned from managing stakeholder relations both at work and through Holy’s is that when there’s limited attention given to purpose or grey areas in the overarching vision, plans can begin to crumble but uniting together behind a common and clear goal is when the best results are achieved.

After all, as the (slightly generic) African proverb goes: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

www.holyshome.org

 

BUSINESS TO BUSINESS SUPPLY CHAINS – WHO CARES?

BUSINESS TO BUSINESS SUPPLY CHAINS – WHO CARES?

Cute children and baby animals. These are two of the most emotive subjects available to campaigners for sustainable supply chain practices. Whether it’s children being forced to pick cotton in Uzbekistan or orang-utans with dwindling natural habitat because of deforestation, heart wrenching stories are powerful advocates for change. Consumers can easily relate to the supply chains that influence these circumstances and shop with a conscience to reward companies who support the Better Cotton Initiative or RSPO palm oil. The images associated with these stories jump off the page and are loved by editors for their ability to get readers engaged and clicking through online.

Rewarding consumer brands with loyalty for ethical practice and influencing their sustainable behaviour through conscious consumption is important, but in terms of impact, it is business-to-business supply chains that could deliver the biggest wins. But communicating what goes on upstream in manufacturing supply chains requires much more imagination to make the subject matter cut through.

Think about an average lorry. Toyota reckons to have 30,000 components in each one of its cars. Let’s assume that commercial vehicles are in roughly the same realm. Even if the lorry itself promises to be fuel efficient and cut CO2 emissions, there are still questions about the supply chain sustainability of each of the individual components. But far fewer photo opportunities.

Data is one compelling alternative way to tell a story. Researchers at Stanford University carried out a large-scale analysis of corporate sustainable sourcing practices and shared their findings early in 2018. They found that more than half of the global companies surveyed make efforts to apply sustainability standards to their suppliers, but 70% of sustainable sourcing practices cover only a subset of input materials for a given product.  Even more concerning (but perhaps not all that surprising) is that almost all sourcing practices addressed only a single tier in the supply chain, usually first tier suppliers, such as textile factories in clothing retail. Unsurprisingly this study has generated some useful column inches, but given the importance of the subject matter, it has hardly moved the media needle.

Without a vocal mass of consumers on social media voting with their shopping baskets, who puts pressure on B2B supply chains to be sustainable and ethical? NGOs, with their limited resources have traditionally been the ones to hold upstream companies to account. They have undoubtedly punched above their weight in terms of influence with the help of the internet and citizen journalism. But now that demonstrating contribution to the SDGs is a collective responsibility within the corporate world, there’s a bigger and infinitely better resourced lobby amassing scale, capable of exerting not just influence, but also hitting businesses where it hurts financially – the investor community. Pressure from this sector has helped generate traction in high profile media.

In December 2017, the FT reported that investors with more than $26tn under management have pledged to push 100 of the highest-emitting companies worldwide to do more to tackle the threat of climate change. About 225 institutions, led by funds including HSBC Global Asset Management and Calpers, the California state employees’ pension system, joined the Climate Action 100+ initiative, intended to co-ordinate pressure on companies to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and improve disclosure and oversight of climate-related risks.

UK giant Legal & General Investment Management (LGIM) last year voted in favour of 95% of climate-related resolutions in companies that it invests in, compared with an average of 21% from other institutional investors.  Even more traditionally ‘passive’ investors, like the world’s largest asset manager Blackrock, have found their teeth, with CEO Larry Fink challenging companies to act with purpose in his now infamous 2018 letter. A quick google of ‘Larry Fink Blackrock letter’ returned 49,400 results, proof enough perhaps that money talks.

For smaller and private companies, where institutional investors hold less sway, there are other factors influencing their supply chain choices. B Corp, the ‘business as a force for good’ movement emanating from the US is spreading geographically and extending its reach from consumer facing small business into B2B and services businesses. Becoming a B Corp is a business certification that requires a supply chain audit as part of a holistic appraisal of operations and values. Danone and other corporations which have achieved B Corp certification (much harder as an established multinational) have been rewarded with huge amounts of positive attention across all media platforms.

All of this is good news for driving change at scale. But how easy will it be for businesses to seek out more ethical supply chain partners? Does conscience always cost more?

Technology buffs would argue that supply chain innovation is driving efficiencies that actually save companies money. In an article published at the end of 2016 which looked at this issue, the Wall Street Journal observed ‘The ability to measure and adjust performance relies on new technologies, as well as collaboration and communication with suppliers — and their suppliers. Technology and communication feed innovation. Innovation feeds growth.’ Investors in Blockchain start-ups would surely agree.

Although they are reported less in the mainstream media, there are many instances where B2B practices are creating entirely new product flows and commercial opportunities. Dubbed ‘web approaches’ these less linear and often asymmetrical partnerships span across large and small firms, corporates and start-ups, public and private, business and NGOs.

An example from the automotive industry is GM which is seen as a leader in supply web approaches by many. Its work in the supply chain has resulted in used water bottles being re-used in Chevrolet Equinox V-6 engine covers and air filters for 10 GM plants. A spin-off product developed in cooperation with The Empowerment Plan, a Detroit NGO is insulation for coats for the homeless.

Whilst sustainability reporting has become increasingly sophisticated and will become further standardised once GRI Standards become compulsory from July 1, media space to report on innovations like these is still scant, but awards are springing up that create a focus for specific supply chain innovation – such as the Global Good Awards for Sustainable Supply Chain, Edie.net’s Sustainability Leaders Awards and Business Green’s new Supply Chain Project of the Year category for 2018.

At best, business-to-business supply chains are shaping up to be catalysts for innovation that rewards companies with new revenue streams. But there is still a long way to go before every component or service is sourced as sustainably as possible.

The good news in terms of where the pressure is coming from is that there is a growing band of activist stakeholders from investors to procurement managers asking for sustainability assurances in contracts. Their influence is underpinned by positive role modelling of award winners and case studies in media. Added up, it certainly shows that B2B supply chains are getting more of the attention and spotlight they deserve.

Narda Shirley and Gong Communications are hosting a roundtable discussion, called ‘Business to business supply chains: Who cares?’, today (25 April) at The Crowd’s XComms event.