Messaging Themes Emerge From Fortune 50 CSR Reports

NERD ALERT: I spent Sunday embarking on one of my favorite new pastimes: reading through corporate responsibility and sustainability reports* of Fortune 50 companies. Why would anyone do such a laborious thing? Well, in typical consumer-facing media, most brands are not overtly blasting messages about their sustainability efforts, and I was keen to learn what some of the biggest companies are doing and saying about sustainability.

It was actually quite inspiring. There are a lot of cool initiatives, like:

Apple’s Campus 2, which will have 1,000 electric vehicle charging stations, or 

AT&T’s water-saving toolkit for commercial buildings, which they’ve shared other companies 

What I found most compelling was the high level of similarity across the reports. In addition to the obvious topics like lowering emissions, using renewable energy, and conserving water, I observed five common messaging themes:

Progress for the Future 

None of the brands reviewed are claiming sustainability mastery. There seems to be a universal focus on making progress against long-term goals aimed at minimizing the impact of climate change on our future. Some brands even honestly admit setbacks and challenges encountered in trying to reach their goals—a sign of the humility interwoven through these reports.

Global Citizenship

Many of the companies reviewed refer to themselves as global citizens. In a recent TED Talk, Hugh Evans describes global citizenship as caring for people and problems beyond the borders of your city, state, or country. Corporate use of this term is a refreshing air of humility. As people and as marketers, we have a tendency to define our universe as the confines of our skin, the walls of our office building or the industry in which we sell products. Companies use of the label “global citizen” suggests they are thinking beyond the confines of their business and reinforcing the obvious point that no matter how big we are, we're still just a contributor to a larger collective entity, Earth.

Systematic Change via Collaboration is Critical

In the same TED Talk, Evans argues that one-off charity or lone-working global citizens are not sufficient to make a dent in the world's problems. He asserts that united effort is required to change systems. I believe it. And many Fortune 50 brands do as well. Almost all of the reports mentioned partnering with environmental NGOs and other businesses to create systematic change. Cool partnership examples: 

AT&T and IBM partnering to help cities analyze data to find efficiency in things like traffic.

Target joining forces with EcoScraps to collect food waste from their headquarters and turn it into composted potting mixes and plant food, some sold in Target stores.

Engaging and Empowering Stakeholders

Another sign of the working-together attitude are initiatives around engaging stakeholders. This ranges from empowering employees to be advocates of sustainability to giving consumers the knowledge and product choices to make their own sustainable choices.


General Motors’ director of sustainability, David Tulauskas, sums it up well: “It's pretty clear that Earth – its people and its environment – make up one big shared system.” He points out that you can't solve one global problem without working on them all. 

An example of this is education, for which nearly every report mentioned at least one initiative. Of note, many companies are supporting STEM (Science Technology, Engineering, Math) education. Not only are they addressing childhood literacy concerns and providing opportunities for underserved groups, but they are simultaneously helping to create a generation of future scientists with the knowledge and skills to keep innovating for sustainability.

Shared Economy 

Shared economy does not yet belong in the list of key themes from CSR reports, as I only saw one mention of it: General Motors partnering with Lyft to develop a fleet of on-demand self-driving cars. Right now, shared economy services are thriving in only a couple of industries: lodging and transportation, but are starting to sprout in other areas (food service, clothing). I believe 2016 sustainability/CSR reports will have more mentions of this phenomenon, as more industries find ways to harness the power of consumer sharing.

*CSR/Sustainability Reports included in analysis: 2014/2015 from Apple, AT&T, Chevron, Costco, CVS Health, Ford, General Electric, General Motors, Home Depot, HP, Johnson & Johnson, Kroger, Lowe's, PepsiCo, Phillips 66, Target, UPS, Walmart

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