The Right Language for Embedding Sustainability

By Cecilia Zevallos, Economic Impact and Entrepreneurship Manager, SABMiller

The Right Language for Embedding Sustainability

At SABMiller, we understand that our profitability depends on healthy communities, growing economies and the responsible use of scarce natural resources. Last year we launched a new sustainable development ambition we call Prosper with five major goals and associated targets:

  1. accelerating growth and social development through our value chains;
  2. making beer the natural choice for the moderate and responsible drinker;
  3. securing shared water resources for the business and local communities;
  4. creating value through reduce waste and carbon emissions; and
  5. supporting responsible and sustainable use of land for brewing crops.

Prosper is not just another CSR program, but rather a key way that we will enable the growth and long-term success of our business. It cannot be a standalone initiative “owned” by Corporate Affairs. We need to integrate these commitments into our strategy and operations, and we are on a journey to do this.

So where do we start?

We recognize that a critical success factor for embedding Prosper is securing buy-in, commitment and ownership across the business, from procurement to brewing operations to sales. And we have learned that we need to speak the right language to get in the door.

Too often, sustainable development professionals speak in sustainability rhetoric. Speaking about social or environmental impact, shared value, or our theory of change can be a real turn off for commercial leaders. However, when we talk about how Prosper can help grow the business—mitigate risk, secure supplies, increase sales, revenue, and market share, enter new markets and/or reinforce brand purpose—we earn a seat at the table where we can align agendas.

In some cases, we discover alignment we didn’t know that we had, because we were speaking different languages. When I worked in Corporate Affairs at Backus, our subsidiary in Peru, our team was benchmarking financial inclusion programmes among other SABMiller subsidiaries like Bavaria, in Colombia, which had a very successful program led by the Bavaria Foundation. Once I was back from Bogota and shared all the great information I received from the Bavaria team with a group of people from different functions in the business at Backus, I was surprised to hear about a project led by our treasury team that happened to focus squarely on financial inclusion! But the treasury team didn’t call it that. To them, the project was about reducing the number of cash payments we received.

Approximately 70% of the payments we received were in cash because we did business with so many small, mom-and-pop shops that didn’t have bank accounts. In response, the Backus treasury team had partnered with banks to offer access to credit, better interest rates, micro-insurance. They called this a “bankarization” project and the KPI was reduction in cash payments. They weren’t tracking social impact, but not because the project didn’t have any—just because social impact and financial inclusion weren’t within the initial KPIs they tracked and weren’t part of their language.

In other cases, we have had to develop a much deeper and more specific understanding of the way each function within the business understands its role, how they operate, and what their incentives are. Then we can talk about our goals and programs in ways that make them aspirational. In my role as Economic Impact and Entrepreneurship Manager, and having a strong focus on Latin America where I am from, I work quite a bit with small-scale retailers, since they account for approximately 90% of the small businesses in our value chain in the region. So to use another example from that space, if we know the value proposition our sales managers are trying to deliver to the retailer, and what their short term incentives are, we can tell them what we are bringing to help them execute their goals.

At the same time, the right language is always just the tip of the iceberg. It is something you have to get past—and once you are speaking the same language, you have to be prepared for the real work to begin.

We might have to rethink what we are offering. In some places it could be transformative to our business and to society to empower very small mom-and-pop shops, as in Latin America. In other places, it could be more powerful to focus on other types of outlets with strong potential for growth, or to shift focus from the off trade to the on trade. We must never forget the business side of the shared value equation.

We also have to align our efforts with the strategy and rhythm of the business and be part of the internal conversation. We have to understand functional strategies, processes, how Sales trains and incentivizes their sales reps, and whether there is scope to turn those sales reps into enablers of retailer growth. And then we must build the business case for programs that build from this, bring benefits for the business and create value for society at the same time.

And these principles apply no matter whether we are talking about strengthening retailers, bringing small-scale farmers into our supply chain, mitigating water risk, or any of our other Prosper priorities.

The bottom line is that as sustainable development professionals, our ability to deliver requires us to integrate—into strategy and planning, our value proposition to customers, and the way we manage our business performance. And this is just as much about leadership as it is about processes and programs. We are building the mindsets and skillsets our colleagues need to think about sustainability as part of how they deliver on their day-to-day roles, and we are building a culture where we can all think about more than short-term financial performance. Speaking the right language is a critical first step in a longer journey to mainstream a balanced, long-term view that generates win-wins for the business and for society.

The “More than Semantics” series is supported by the Citi Foundation.

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One Response

  1. Excellent points and good illustrations. I believe that the language adaptaion is a crucial part of the integration of sustainability in each department. Each department speaks its own language in which the business case for sustaiability should be communicated. The linguistic issue could also be framed as part of a larger challenge of competing institutional logics within and between organisations. Apart from this intra-organisational challenge that exists between departments, a similar challenge exists in inter-organisational communication, especially between organisations of highly competing institutional logics, such as in business-NGO partnerships.



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