Learning from the UK retail sector

In my work with SAS, I was recently involved in a research project to help a FTSE 100 retailer develop it’s employer brand proposition – an interesting and challenging experience, not least because of their utter conviction (sadly unfounded) that a long-standing commitment to Corporate Responsibility gave them a real source of brand and competitive advantage.

You didn’t have to scratch far beneath the surface to see how difficult – and expensive – it would have been to try and dominate the CR battlfield. Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer and the John Lewis Partnership are all platinum-rated by the BITC CR Index, and (along with the Co-op) have all been named as “Britain’s greenest” by one poll or another over the past couple of years. Throw in “Plan A” and all the other noise surrounding numerous high-profile initiatives and investments and it starts to look like mission impossible.

It got me thinking… Can companies really establish Corporate Responsibility as a source of advantage, or is it destined to become a hygiene factor?

As any self-respecting MBA graduate will tell you, the answer is “it depends.”

It’s clear (to me at least) that companies following the generally accepted best practice of triple bottom line accounting are going to find it increasingly difficult to establish clear blue water between themselves and competitors.

The trouble is that – in seeking simply to balance economic, ethical and ecological demands – these kinds of approaches are limited to minimising the negative impacts of the existing business model. That model remains fundamentally unchanged, and it leaves little scope for differentiation beyond subjective arguments over the authenticity of companies’ CR commitments and who is “doing it better” (just witness Sainsbury’s “same price, different values” campaign aimed at Tesco).

On the other hand, companies like Interface Inc. in the US demonstrate the potential to create lasting and meaningful differentiation if one is prepared to take more radical action.

The key lies in making the transition to so-called triple top line thinking, where ethical and environmental concerns cease to be part of a balancing act and instead become fundamental design values that shape (and, where necessary, challenge and transform) the way a company does business.

Easier said than done? Undoubtedly. But if you’re really serious about establishing CR as a source of brand and competitive advantage, it’s the only way to go.

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