Companies Don't Care Anymore That You Don't Care Anymore About This Sustainability Thing

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It kind of doesn't matter to serious companies that some people still dismiss corporate sustainability as empty green PR.

“It kind of doesn't matter," Sprint CEO Dan Hesse said in an interview last month. "We do it because it's the right thing to do."

The nice-corporation movement still has plenty of skeptics, in part because it features CEOs of global corporations who sometimes talk about the right thing to do in a way that makes it sound oddly coincident with whatever they’re doing.

Yet companies that both do good and are seen to be doing good say, often with data to back it up, that it helps them improve employee satisfaction, hiring, community relations and resource efficiency.

Sprint's sales force recently claimed more than 30 major business "wins," Hesse said, that involved the corporate responsibility group forging connections with sustainability executives at client firms. The team's work -- which includes tips on greening operations -- enabled the company to earn or keep more than $1.5 million in annual revenue, among eight clients in particular. Hesse himself recruits on college campuses, where he meets young people attracted to the company for its record on issues that matter most them, perhaps after reliable 4G LTE service.

The same is true of resource management. Last year, 98 percent of Sprint's greenhouse gas emissions came from purchased energy. And 88 percent of that total went toward powering its mobile network. Understanding that fact led the company to start rejiggering aging equipment or replacing it with gear that can work on 25 percent less power.

At its best, sustainability, corporate responsibility, citizenship or whatever they call it is changing how companies manage employees, outside groups, physical resources -- even journalists. Just last week I received an email from a consultancy that is working with AT&T to gauge what various sustainability professionals think about the company's work in the area. Many large companies hire outside PR and strategy firms to contact journalists and manage their end of the reporting process. Who knew that transparency and relationship-building -- hallmarks of sustainability -- required so much external communications firepower?

Sprint released its 2013 corporate responsibility earlier this month. AT&T's latest corporate citizenship and sustainability report came out in June.

Belittling sustainability, which I see a lot of, risks neglecting its most important lesson, that enslavement to conventional short-term growth expectations can threaten brands’ long-term success.

It's a big deal. The nature of growth may be changing, according to Christoph Lueneburger, a partner at executive recruiter Egon Zehnder.

"To be clear: there is nothing wrong with growth per se," Lueneburger writes in his new book A Culture of Purpose. Growth, he says, is "a good servant, but a terrible master.”

Daniel "Dan" Hesse, chief executive officer of Sprint Corp. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

Daniel "Dan" Hesse, chief executive officer of Sprint Corp. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

How tricky is it to reconcile the right thing to do with shareholder-value maximization? “It has to make sense or we won’t do it,” Hesse said of Sprint. Green buildings are generally too expensive and solar panel prices haven’t dropped far enough yet for widespread use. Hesse is sometimes able to extend the payback period for some capital investments when they are smart and meet sustainability goals but need a little push.

Traditional corporate governance is beginning to absorb sustainability concerns, slowly. The board supports Sprint’s sustainability work, Hesse says, but its primary function, protecting investors’ pocketbooks, is still defined traditionally. “A lot of minority investors don’t really care whether we pollute or not, for example,” he said. For them, “it’s purely financial.”

More by Eric Roston (@eroston on Twitter)

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