Financial Time’s columnist Gary Silverman isn’t directly commenting on sustainability in his piece “Activists in the Boardroom” (http://tablet.olivesoftware.com/Olive/Tablet/FTUK/SharedArticle.aspx?href=FTU%2F2015%2F05%2F09&id=Ar01403 ), but he comes pretty close to it and presents a way of considering the role of sustainability in the face of the “Millennial Economy”. His premise is that the leaders of Starbucks and McDonalds are adopting an Obama 2008 approach to governance – a mix of social activism and unbridled optimism. I think the direct connection to Obama is a bit of a reach and really just a hook for the article. But the indirect linkage makes sense: millennials make consumption choices according to a broader array of preferences — and in response to new channels of communication — than previous generations. Starbucks is driven in part by Schultz’s personal agenda, but its high profile social agenda aligns with the need for the brand to stay relevant with millennials. It’s a natural evolution. For McDonalds, it’s different and more along the lines of a revolution. The company is struggling, has changed CEOs and is looking at a weakening position as millennials make up a larger and larger share of their target customer. McDonald’s problem is twice as hard as Starbucks — it has a brand/image problem and a product problem. Starbucks really only has the former (millennials like coffee). But there is a common lesson for any consumer product company: talk to consumers via channels they rely on and respond to, and talk to them about not just your products, but the larger array of factors that impact consumer decision-making.
For sustainability, arguable the lesson here is somewhat of a mixed bag (but overall good news). Targeting very real consumer decision making factors via information about corporate sustainability actions helps where sustainability has sometimes struggled within companies – drawing a line from sustainability to the top line. I have no problem with a company investing in sustainability for no other reason than because it increases sales – if that is what it takes. The only downside to this approach is that it reinforces the misconception that at its core sustainability is just about marketing. But arming sustainability advocates with an argument for top line value creation — to go along with the easier to prove bottom line value of sustainability actions like energy or supply chain efficiencies and the more inchoate but no less real “brand value” creation argument – is undoubtedly a good thing.