Sustainability in reality, is it a crowd-pleaser?

Crowdsourcing has to be the way to go if you want to cut through the greenwash. For brand leaders, that means opening your doors in a proper peer-led engagement exercise and observing the clouds of constructive critique that will be kicked up as a result.


Sainsbury’s has done just that. And hats off to its CEO Justin King; he’d never heard of the term ‘crowdsource’ before. But for him, it was important to put the company’s sustainability strategy to the test and let a roomful of CSR experts dissect it to death – was it perceived to be working? Is Sainsbury’s as good as it thinks it is?

At the very least, it was bold and brave move. It was an industry first. It made competitors sit up. But the best appears to have been saved till last – the feedback that came out of this initiative can now be accessed in a 25-page appraisal document. It’s incredibly insightful data. Sainsbury’s will use it to inform future thinking, you can be sure of that.

There is much to comment upon; over 150 sustainability professionals cast judgement on 10 key areas where the company’s 20 by 20 sustainability plan could be rated and compared directly against its competitors. The crowd were asked how important each of these areas should be to Sainsbury’s, and how well the retailer is performing in each of them.

Interestingly there were two areas that scored highest in terms of importance but also lowest in terms of performance – ‘building a sustainable supply chain’ and ‘engaging customers on sustainability’. For Sainsbury’s, that’s a massive steer – these are the two areas where it can now leverage the most opportunity for improvement.

In its action plan going forward, the retailer states that to claim outright leadership in supply chain sustainability it must take a more revolutionary approach. “Could this be the area to become famous for?” it ponders.

It also realises it needs to tell its sustainability story better. Stakeholders appear unaware of much of the good work already undertaken on carbon and energy, waste and packaging – even sourcing of fish stocks. Not just that, but the retailer is part of a much wider system and it therefore must become more accountable for changing customer behaviour and attitudes.

By listening to its peers in such a frank and open way, Sainsbury’s has no doubt learnt some harsh truths. Especially as the calibre of the crowd is without question – B&Q, Barclays, Coca Cola, Sony, GlaxoSmithKline, The Body Shop, Tesco, Toyota, Which?, Mars, Rolls-Royce, Virgin Atlantic and many more gave up their time to help drill down on the bothersome.

What will come out of this process remains to be seen, but I’m sure many a CSR manager has been awakened to the reputational merits of such collaborative scrutiny. Better late than never. Many in academia can’t progress without this level of peer review, it’s how they gain esteem and respect.

Going beyond greenwash means greater transparency and providing meaningful data so you can start to build up a solid evidence base. Lets hope other brand leaders follow where Sainsbury’s has dared to tread.

maxine perella

Topics: Waste & resource management
Tags: Coca Cola | Data | Engagement | fish | mars | packaging | supply chain | tesco
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