Social Media and Sustainability

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With Earth Day rapidly fading from view, I can get back to my routine carping. SustainAbility, the consultancy founded by John Elkington, periodically posts what are usually columns worth reading. The latest one tells of how companies are using the internet and social media to start and maintain a conversation with stakeholders. The opening paragraph sets the tone of the article.

“Open is good, closed is bad.” Not exactly what you expect to hear from a former top Shell executive, but when Björn Edlund took the stage at the first Just Means conference on social media and stakeholder engagement he was almost painfully honest. He argued that “large corporations are obsessed with control, rather than conversation,” but suggested that business thinking is beginning to shift.

I visited the several corporate websites mentioned in the article, and spent some time on the Timberland and Nestlé sites. These two examples of how companies can use social media are very different. Timberland has created a site of their own and invited the world to come. Nestlé has chosen Facebook as their window to the world. The differences between these two is striking. Timberland has created a rubric, Earthkeepers, for visitors coming to their site and constructed places for dialog and learning.

In both cases the companies achieved connections—Nestlé’s Facebook page has over 90,000 surprisingly active fans and the Timberland site has attracted a wide range of participants. Both also achieved a degree of contagion through the viral nature of blogs and Twitter that transmitted the stories beyond the confines of the individual sites. It was the tone and approach that positioned Nestlé on the wrong side and Timberland on the right side of this equation.

Nestlé is simply using the Facebook technology to create a large number of “friends” who respond to posts placed there by Nestlé. I am not impressed. Recently Nestlé scolded a number of the respondents who used an altered version of the Nestle logo as their profile picture, but had to soften their position. The pushback, referred to in the quote above, was loud and angry, and the company apologized.

I did not sense any real communication going on. Nestlé posts lots of PR statements on their page and people come and comment. The comments look like those for any popular website, friends and flamers alike. Mostly what I read was just noise and rants. I would agree with the SustainAbility piece that the use of social media is a great way to establish connections to a large audience. But that doesn’t mean that this channel will be effective in promoting sustainability. Looking at the specific posts on the Nestlé site, I would guess that they emanate from the PR department who almost certainly runs the page. The responses in turn go back there, and I am skeptical that they go much farther into the recesses of the company where they might actually have an impact. PR departments are designed to deflect virtually anything that is aimed toward the corporate body.

Timberland, conversely, is operating a site where useful information about sustainability, or better, greening, is passed back and forth. I have to add my usual complaint that the site confuses greening and sustainability as almost all similar sites do. I am sure that the company pays attention to what their respondents post, but there is not enough educational information coming the other way. Yes, companies need to listen carefully to the world of stakeholders. It’s good business and it’s mostly good for the Earth. But the same people who offer input to Timberland often lack a understanding of the full scope issues being discussed. Timberland and all consumer products companies that talk to the world through advertising and product information have a large role to play in educating the consumers, beyond product talk, about the complexity of sustainability. Such talk will eventually force companies to tell the truth about the state of the world and what must be done to produce sustainability. Timberland has taken a step in that direction. I encourage them to make even more use of their website as an example of the power of social media to initiate real change in the world.

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John Elkington said:

Exactly our point, John. Both companies have experimented, both still have much to learn, as do the rest of us, but the Nestle saga to date has lessons for anyone expecting all of this to be easy.

Full disclosure: Nestle is a client of SustainAbility's - and I sit on their new Creating Shared Value Advisory Board. There's good intent here, but the new social media all-to-often show up the internal weaknesses or irregularities in a corporate culture, like an online X-ray.