On March 27, I joined leaders from across the corporate social responsibility community at the YourCause CSRworks Conference in Dallas to communicate how we are going to make a bigger impact together in our companies and the world, particularly through pursuing sustainable practices.  

In its eighth year, the conference focuses on action. So, I addressed a session about a new proposed sustainability standard for professional services firms like Edelman that I played a role in developing. The standard – NSF 391.1, specifically – serves as a great example of an important initiative that helps illuminate “what’s next?”

Initially, we focused on providing a backdrop exploring the deep distrust worldwide in our major institutions: government, business, media and NGOs. We’re at a pivotal moment where, in the absence of strong institutional trust, the private sector has an opportunity (and a responsibility, for that matter) to stand for something greater and take action on societal issues.

In fact, the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer found that consumers’ No. 1 expectation of CEOs is to build trust; by nearly a two-to-one margin, a company is trusted to take specific actions that both increase profits and improve economic and social conditions. And the 2017 Edelman Earned Brand study reinforces that view that companies and their leaders should take the lead on important societal issues.

The study revealed that 57 percent of 14,000 consumers surveyed worldwide will buy or boycott a brand solely because of its position on a social or political issue. What that means is that consumers will buy a brand, switch from it, avoid it and – at the extreme – boycott it over a company’s or CEO’s stance on a controversial or social issue. This is the new normal for belief-driven consumers.

This is the backdrop to NSF 391.1. Created by NSF International – the independent global health organization that writes standards and tests and certifies products to minimize adverse health effects and protect the environment – the proposed standard was developed collaboratively by stakeholders from government, civil society and the industry.

Now, it’s difficult to provide sustainability standards for an industry that doesn’t create a traditional “product.” But it’s vitally important to a rapidly growing field that the Business Research Company estimates will reach nearly $5 trillion a year in 2020, and that the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) recognizes as a growing supplier to federal agencies and departments. In fiscal 2016, GSA estimated that spend at $66.9 billion.

NSF 391.1. is anticipated to be adopted later this year, and public comments about it have been submitted. It was developed over the past four-and-a-half years and reflects the belief that a workable sustainability standard for professional services must be relevant and credible to the marketplace.

The standard is distinctive and innovative, and I’m proud to have helped shape it as a joint committee member and chair of the Social Working Group Task Force. Here are some things you should know about it:

  • It’s customized for professional services. To evolve a collective voice for the professional services sector, we looked at other sector-specific efforts, such as the Responsible Business Alliance (formerly EICC), the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and the Sustainability Consortium, among others. We were determined to tailor this standard specifically for our sector, especially since we differ so markedly from the industrial sector in our effects on the environment and sustainability.
  • We employed the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) consensus-based, multi-stakeholder approach that engaged representatives from government, civic society and industry to use our collective voice and our particular key performance indicators, or KPIs, to build something new and unique.
  • It’s a points-driven and results-based standard such as LEED for buildings, and it isn’t merely for guidance or a framework.
  • It encompasses four equal sections – environmental, social, economic, and sustainable supply chains. And the unique supply chain section is weighted equally on the standard’s scorecard with the other three sections. In the supply chain section, we included KPIs not captured before, such as supplier diversity, environmentally preferred purchasing and a system of accountability. The standard also covers other special KPIs that pertain to health and well-being, community involvement and diversity and inclusion.

To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society. Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers and the communities in which they operate. We believe the NSF 391.1 standard can help to provide a roadmap for professional services companies to further evolve their sustainability journey wherever they may be today.

John Edelman is managing director, Global Engagement and Corporate Responsibility.

Scott Webb