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Toyota's Mess & Sustainability: Realizing Sometimes There Is No Choice

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Image Source | Getty Images

It's all about choices.

Have you heard that one before—maybe from parents, from a boss, from a mentor or maybe even from an employee presenting a marketing plan for your company?

What if, for one silly hypothetical moment, we didn’t have a choice about something?

Like recalling millions of cars for a faulty "smart pedal" and knowing it will put your company (read: Toyota) in an irreversible tailspin of PR, communication, media interviews and a dip in consumer confidence—the strong force of your product line.

Or the economic crisis that has us all gasping for breath even today.

For the people/systems blamed for it there were choices. But for all the industries and small businesses that have been affected by it, there haven't been many choices except to trim down, lean back and wait. For many it has meant holding off any decision lest it tip their company into non-existence. Now that the unemployment rate is finally fallen below the scary 10% mark, companies and decision-makers might start seeing resurgence in their palette of choices.

And with choices comes responsible decision-making.

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Will these choices include a focused effort on learning about corporate social responsibility? Will the C suite begin evaluating best methods to reach sustainability in their organizations? With so much talk about CSR and sustainability in the market today, heightened by Copenhagen and more recently, the World Economic Forum, which focused heavily on the CSR component of the world economy, is it fair to hope that the subject is occurring at the top level along with decisions on hiring, bonuses, and reinvigorating leadership development programs?

Agreeably, there are some companies that are helping spread the message of adopting CSR principles and aligning their business and social strategies because they see as not having a choice. PepsiCo, Seventh Generation, Wal-Mart, and many others are leading the way to tackling the many issues that arise when you begin investigating how unsustainable your company has been all these decades. And then the committee begins tackling the question of choices. Should we choose short-term flat-lined profits for a longer-term boost to the bottom line or is status quo too comfortable? How important is the triple bottom line to our company?

Many companies are approaching this from the human resources side and instituting chief sustainability officers or adding the title to current diversity and HR personnel. I discussed this a few weeks ago underscoring the fact that merely instituting new titles does not garner the knowledge required for these companies to become sustainable—and instead makes the decision purely reputational and ideological in nature. A recent example is Coca-Cola's chief calling himself the beverage company's chief sustainability officer in an interview with Forbes.com, emphasizing that he will never appoint one.

There is also the danger of running into the tons of wrong information out there on "how to achieve sustainability," especially with viral social media like Twitter, Facebook, etc. spreading messages without evaluating their merit. At the very core though, deciding on your company's sustainability strategy is an exact science, with different methods in place to fit diverse company models and product lines. For example, a hotel company would use a strategy that would differ from a financial firm or a consumer products giant. Their needs and their stakeholders differ. Then there is the question of who your main relatives are: do you primarily serve businesses or consumers? Are you private or public?

In short, it comes down to this: beginning on your company's sustainability strategy requires a specific—and to an extent, technical—knowledge with established guidelines, standards and computed-to-the-nth-percentage point methods, e.g.: LEED certification, CSR Reporting, Carbon accounting, etc. Using the many available methods to create one strategy for your company also requires time and diligence along with the knowledge to make informed decisions or a dedicated team focused on specific objectives, not the human resources or marketing department who can tag this on as a PR duty.

And when and if you get to this stage, you realize that it isn't about choice anymore.

Sustainability is the only profitable way forward.

The world is getting warmer, it is getting more crowded, and it is only up to us as board members, executives and decision makers to realize it isn't a choice anymore.

But is anyone listening?

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Aman Singh is the Corporate Responsibility Editor at Vault.com. She is a New York University alum and previously wrote for The Wall Street Journal. Her area of work includes corporate diversity practices and sustainability, and how they translate into recruitment and strategic development at Fortune 1000 companies.

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