Sandra E. Taylor, President and CEO of the new global consulting firm Sustainable Business International, LLC, talks to brandchannel and explains why corporate social responsibility nowadays is not just good for the brand, it’s essential for brand value.
A pioneer in the field of CSR, Taylor is the former senior vice president of corporate social responsibility for Starbucks Coffee Company and also the former vice president and director for public affairs for Eastman Kodak Company. Taylor has also held several senior leadership positions at organizations such as ICI Americas Inc. and the American branch of Imperial Chemical Industries Plc. Taylor was also appointed as a Foreign Service Officer for the United States Department of State and was an attorney with Gosrsuch, Kirgis, Campbell, Walker and Grover, Colorado’s third-largest law firm. If that wasn’t enough, Taylor also serves on numerous boards, including the Seattle Public Library Foundation, the Public Affairs Council in Washington, D.C., the National Center for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the Women’s Leadership Board of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and the Capella Education Company in Minneapolis. And—she continues to volunteer the little time she has left to support organizations committed to the empowerment of women in Africa.
At Starbucks, Taylor was responsible for the daily direction of the CSR programs. With a staff of twenty-six employees, she set the bar high when she developed two leading social responsibility programs for the Starbucks brand and published the company’s award-winning annual CSR report in 2004. The first program was the C.A.F.E. Practices, and the second was the Ethos Water Fund.
The Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E). Practices was launched as a coffee buying guideline to assist struggling coffee farmers by paying a premium for producing
high-quality coffee, using environmentally friendly practices while farming coffee (such as reducing pesticides and growing shade trees to protect biodiversity), achieving economic accountability and promoting social responsibility in the coffee supply chain.
Taylor sums it all by saying: “The farmer receives a fair price, the community enjoys needed services and a better quality of life, the environment is conserved, customers enjoy high quality coffee and feel good about doing business with Starbucks, employees feel proud of the company’s values and commitment to sustainability.”
Another win-win strategy Taylor developed for Starbucks was the Ethos Water Fund for the Starbucks Foundation. When Starbucks bought Ethos Water in 2005, Taylor wanted to introduce cause marketing as a way to raise awareness among customers of the water crisis in impoverished countries and the critical need for children to access clean drinking water. She was able to sync cause marketing with a mechanism that allowed a certain percentage of the bottled water price to go right back into the Ethos Water Fund of the Starbucks Foundation (currently, the price is U.S. $0.05 and Canada $0.10 at company-operated Starbucks stores in Canada).
“The projects funded in developing countries are typically in coffee and tea growing countries, such as Ethiopia, Rwanda and India. Customers feel they are part of the solution by buying the product, leading to customer loyalty and presumably, more sales, and Starbucks employees are proud to be associated with the product. This also strengthened our relationship with suppliers in the countries where we invested in water projects.” Taylor adds jovially, “A win-win for the business and for social responsibility!”
Taylor saw her future calling when she was approached numerous times by corporate executives after giving presentations at international conferences, many of them asking how to create CSR programs. Now as a consultant, Taylor is hired to create those CSR programs and works closely with chief executives, CSR teams and brand strategists, as well as corporate giving officers. She said she often begins by explaining to them what consumers are expecting of companies, and she explains what competing brands are doing.
“But I still like to understand the actual brand product first,” says Taylor. “I think it’s important to start with the supply chain, to know what the product is, who is making it, even knowing what the conditions are like in the factory. I want to know is there a way to make this product that is more ethical—I think that is a better way to start than beginning solely with philanthropy and giving back.”
And considering that philanthropy is only one aspect of CSR, Taylor is quick to note that it is not the only aspect of CSR, and can present a false sense of trust between the consumer and the brand. The brand takes on a “greenwashed” look.
“There has to be a connection that is easy to see between positive brand image and corporate giving,” states Taylor. “This is why it’s important to look at the product because you have to see how the ethics and values are implementing the brand. Consumers want to know more about how employees are treated, the factory conditions, they want know if the corporation is actually talking to people in the community about issues and concerns within the business. CSR is about going above and beyond what is required by law; it’s about how you as a company can do better year after year. But it’s all about ethics and values within the brand.”
Taylor says there are many brands showing strong CSR strategies, such as General Electric and Wal-Mart, because they are taking responsibility and publishing solid CSR reports. Many marketing and brand executives are now including annual CSR reports in their consumer research. But CSR is not just for the big mega-brands. Even the smallest company can implement CSR practices into their brand.
Taylor concludes: “I even advised one small company that truly wanted to give back but didn’t have a lot of money to implement large scale CSR policies. So they started a volunteerism program for their employees. Consumers have high expectations of brands, so if brands keep their commitment to do the right thing, the consumer will continue to reward the brand.”