On a Saturday afternoon, workers at the California plant of Interface Carpet don jumpsuits, head to a local landfill, dive into the refuse, and retrieve garbage. Employees aren't searching for lost currency, just discarded items that could be recycled. It's a routine called "the dumpster dive." After cleaning up, staffers head back to the plant, and think about how they can preserve items for recycling that are normally discarded.
The image may sound messy, but it fits perfectly with the vision of the company's founder, Ray Anderson, who decided to transform his company's practices, in large part because of a book he read.
Besides green initiatives, Interface Carpet adopted a service mission and altered its dealings with customers, the surrounding community, and the environment. Instead of selling carpet and simply moving on to the next customer, the company implemented a service model whereby customers lease the carpet and Interface maintains the product.
Sustainable initiatives underwritten by the company range from education grants for schools studying the effects of climate change, to a "fair works" initiative whereby hand woven panels made in India are purchased at market price and sold in the United States.
Convinced of the necessity to change the business model, Anderson toured every plant to share his awakening with all employees in the company. He created an "Eco Dream Team" (that included Paul Hawken, the author whose book, Ecology of Commerce, shaped his vision) to advise him on initial steps.
"Donating products is the old model," says Erin Meezan, assistant vice president for sustainability at Interface.
"It's not about writing a bigger check or being smarter about who you donate products to," Meezan states. "Corporate social responsibility starts with developing and engaging your own people and integrating it into your business model."
Corporate social responsibility is moving beyond purchasing recycling bins and turning off lights at the end of the day. It encompasses how an organization conducts itself in the marketplace and the image it projects outside company walls. Employees might contribute legal or financial services to a charity in kind, or send workers to clean up after a natural disaster.
With the exception of deciding to pay a fair price to suppliers in developing countries, no single element within the chain is new, but the sophistication of responsible corporate behavior, linking disparate practices into a whole strategy, is taking different shapes.
Whether such practices will survive in the coming decades is unknown, but many organizations are conscious of what they call the triple bottom line - environment, community, and finance.
It is an acknowledgement by organizations already engaged in charitable works and greening efforts that what's good for the surrounding community can benefit the organization as well. And the best efforts do not require new purchases or carving out additional time.
"[To the question of] whether this is a fad that will fizzle out, I think the answer is no," says Peter Heslin, assistant professor of management and organizations at Southern Methodist University. "I don't see companies going in reverse."
According to a survey on the issue conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, most organizations continue to sponsor community service activities several times each year - a sign that such efforts are more like singular events rather than strategic, long-term initiatives.
Yet, a crucial calling card for the generations entering the workforce is a company's commitment to responsible practices. MBA students report being committed to working for a socially responsible employer and are willing to take a pay cut to do so.
"This generation wants to work for a corporation that is socially responsible," says Barry Anderson, interim CEO for Gifts in Kind. "When I entered the workforce, that never came up."
What separates sustainable volunteer or charitable efforts from feel-good efforts is the amount of creativity behind them. Individuals charged with managing corporate responsibility emphasize the need to use the organization's existing talents, whether in the form of skills or supplies donated, in a way that aids recipients. The community service component should be integrated with an organization's daily functions so that it becomes more than just a one-time event.
"It shouldn't be, 'Today we're going to a homeless shelter, but tomorrow we're not doing anything,'" says Susan Sarfati, an organizational strategy consultant.
Tom Dekar of Deloitte traces the origins of the current movement to the Global Compact of 1999, when the United Nations outlined 10 principles for organizations to follow regarding fair practices such as uniform labor laws.
Expectations to meet such ideals are higher, even among for-profit enterprises. When submitting proposals for consulting contracts, Deloitte asks itself and is often asked by potential partners, to identify its corporate citizenship initiatives in detail.
"We tell our clients to look at their supply chain critically to find out if they do anything that might embarrass you," he says. "Ultimately it reflects on your business."
Oftentimes, a successful campaign can draw upon the willingness of employees to chip in. At Hewlett-Packard, employees can choose a product they wish to purchase for donation, select a charity, and contribute 25 percent toward the product cost, and the company will pick up the remaining 75 percent.
Groups of employees can join to purchase a server for a charity or other recipient. The allocated budget is often used up in a matter of days as the company opens the donation through an email announcement.
Men's Warehouse provides suits for a welfare-to-work program in Greensboro, North Carolina. The clothier keeps the pipeline going with little fanfare, as the tags are removed to limit advertising or the reappearance of clothes in secondary markets, according to Anderson.
One distinguishing trait of responsible corporate behavior is its relatively low visibility. Many organizations are content to inform their staff of ongoing initiatives, but stop short of launching a media campaign, perhaps fearing a backlash if efforts fail or being criticized for acting solely out of self-interest.
While it is fair to ask whether corporate outreach efforts are done to project a favorable image above other considerations, the real test of its value is whether an individual or institution benefits from the actions of an organization.
"Critics will say that if an initiative is self-interested, and the organization benefits from it, then it should not be classified as corporate citizenship," says Marc Orlitzky, a professor of management at Penn State University at Altoona.
"I disagree. They should be judged based on how it benefits society. You can't judge an organization's motives, but you can measure outcomes."
Normally a frequent target of critics because of its labor practices, Wal-Mart made great strides in building sustainable initiatives. Orlitzky believes the retailer could become a leader in sustainability efforts within three years. Solar panels are being installed in all of the retailer's super centers. Unused energy is sold back into the energy grid, representing a cost-saving move for the community.
Wal-Mart also sells organic cotton products, and instead of passing on the cost to consumers, sells it at the same price as regular cotton products. Fish products are purchased from sustainable sources such as fish farms, and not from natural sources. To verify their contribution, a council reviews Wal-Mart's efforts.
Many of Wal-Mart's initiatives remain unseen or unknown to consumers because the company chooses not to promote its efforts. Ortlitzky says large retailers often seek to avoid any hint of exaggerating its contribution, also mindful of the attendant criticism from interest groups that the first steps are adequate, but not enough.
Not all of Wal-Mart's greening efforts succeeded. The retailer attempted an electronic recycling program, allowing customers to return laptops or monitors at the end of the product cycle. Low participation rates forced the store to scale back efforts. Orlitzky says one reason was the lack of awareness among customers.
Donating unused inventory is a natural way to give back for large retailers. Home Depot launched a program whereby unused or unsold household supplies are donated to organizations charged with building affordable housing.
Called "Framing Hope," every imaginable item is set aside, including lumber, hand tools, flooring, sinks, or tiles, with the exception of potentially hazardous materials. Tom Wroblewski, senior operations analyst for Home Depot says the company will donate about $10 million worth of supplies this year. Most of the items are unsold or are being replaced by a new version.
The initiative started sluggishly because associates had to handle products for donation manually. Eventually, the store created a software suite that is integrated with existing inventory programs to earmark items for potential donation. The system helps associates make decisions and includes enough checks and balances to prevent mishandling of items, mistakes, or theft.
Store officials did not want the donation initiative to consume too much of associates' time. Nor did they want items lying in storage awaiting pickup.
"We had to design something that was simple and foolproof with support from the corporate office so that associates are not afraid to make decisions," Wroblewski says.
Another ongoing charitable partnership continues with KaBOOM!, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to building playgrounds in underserved neighborhoods such as ones damaged by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Home Depot donates materials and labor toward rebuilding efforts.
Various charitable initiatives are managed throughout the organization. Each store designates an individual Team Depot captain who coordinates charitable efforts within a store. At the district level, which encompasses 10 to 12 area stores, another captain oversees larger initiatives.
What dooms many organizations' efforts, Orlitzky believes, is a lack of performance evaluation methods. Managers and employees should be graded for their efforts to maintain responsible corporate practices and be given support to correct any mistakes.
"If a company takes the triple bottom line seriously, then they need a balanced scorecard with equal weight given to each category," Orlitzky says. "It has to be judged for sustainability and not just recruiting purposes otherwise it is set up for failure."
Greening initiatives are one of the more fundamental aspects of responsible corporate behavior. In contrast to donations, greening often requires little additional funding, just planning. The trade show industry is the second most wasteful industry in the country, trailing only construction.
Trade show organizers could take small steps such as cutting down on 400-page program guides, offering a newspaper opt-out program and eliminating bottled water, according to Scott Lindley, vice president of development for the National Convene Green Alliance.
"We're in step 1 of a 100-step process," he says. "Not every association can be totally green. You need to find a balance. Sponsors want visibility, but there may be a way to do that without paper. People often determine whether it was a good meeting based on how much 'stuff' they receive so it's important to explain why policies are different."
Starbucks held a recent convention in New Orleans and partnered with United Way to donate all of the furniture used during the event to individuals affected by Hurricane Katrina, according to Anderson.
"There's no extra inventory, so they have to plan this," Anderson says.
Alex DeNoble, a professor of management at San Diego State University believes that self-regulation regarding the environment is a way for businesses to stave off eventual requirements. Government mandates are always costly to businesses, so if they adopt them gradually over time, they will be in compliance when laws change.
Taking a leadership role before being required to do so demonstrates good business sense, he says. The connection between responsible practices need not be tied to quarterly reports or reaching new customers.
"Joan Kroc exhibited a social conscience without thinking about how it translates into greater profits," DeNoble says. "When the length to good business practices isn't clear, that shows a business is being proactive. There's not a clear link between running the Ronald McDonald House and the hamburger business."
DeNoble acknowledges that McDonald's menu is an ongoing source of controversy and one that is hard to reconcile with even the most aggressive charitable campaigns.
Responsible practices do not always refer to aiding the community at large. They can be directed inward, providing a lift to staff.
Borders decided to focus on the well-being of its own employees when it established an "internal United Way," according to Adam Grant, professor of management at the University of North Carolina, who studies corporate social practices.
Employees who experience a qualifying event such as a death in the family, extended illness, or bankruptcy can apply for a grant and receive a reply within 48 hours, with a check if approved. Educational scholarships were initially available on a need basis, but the initiative has expanded to include merit-based awards.
All along, the goal was to keep the outreach at grassroots levels, so any employee donation was matched up to 50 percent by the bookseller. Grant found a 60 percent participation rate in charitable giving among employees. While the names of individual beneficiaries were kept confidential, Borders made sure to publicize acts of charity in its newsletter, during staff meetings, and on the intranet.
"They institutionalized the giving process," Grant says. "It showed how important a single donation could be for the life of one employee. People saw a social problem that they could help to solve."
Surveys conducted to determine the reasons for such high participation showed surprising results.
"The company thought that helping an employee would create a sense of loyalty, but the act of giving was a much more powerful source of commitment to the company," Grant says.
Even when the best intentions are philanthropic, initiatives do carry pitfalls. Especially inside companies beset by turmoil or low morale, cynical employees will question whether initiatives are undertaken to burnish the company's image instead of advancing a service mission.
Another area to avoid is charitable programs to which employees feel obligated or pressured to give, which can undermine the whole effort, according to Grant. Such initiatives should be flexible enough to allow people to contribute only in ways with which they are comfortable.
Heslin emphasizes the need to establish an identifiable purpose for the initiative other than simply raising morale that can be documented before and after the program is completed. He believes that sharing the stories of people who benefitted from donations or technical assistance is the most powerful way that employees learn the value of their contributions. Some organizations invite beneficiaries to discuss how they were affected.
"You have to clarify the links between what individuals in the company are doing and outcomes," Heslin says. "That's at the core of keeping it going. You can't get the environment to speak, but you can get people who are affected to tell their stories. It can be very powerful."
Workplace analysts agree that corporate social responsibility presents a way to think strategically about efforts within an organization more than presenting a set of ideas. After all, conservation, charitable giving, and donations are not new. But the pressure to be active throughout an organization exists more now than at anytime in the past.
"Companies could have been doing all of this 20 to 30 years ago," DeNoble says. "Now, if a company is not proactive, it could have a negative effect." t+d