Years ago, a man I was dating told me he didn’t trust companies that give money to charity. It was at the beginning of the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) movement, when it was new for companies to connect with nonprofits as a way to gain positive public mindshare. His rationale: “They are just giving money as a marketing tool. They don’t really care about the charity.”

My reply: “So?”

To me, the motive was irrelevant, since the nonprofits got the money they needed.
I moved on from the relationship.

In the years that have passed, CSR has evolved from being a good idea engaged in by a few smart brands, to being an entire industry of its own. At the recent Sustainable Brands Conference in Detroit, officials from the country’s largest, most influential companies shared best practices on corporate sustainability.

Interestingly, much of the discussion revolved around which company is more sustainably focused than another and which is more talk than action. As I heard one reporter say, “There is no shortage of cynicism here.”

The judgement around the sustainability in companies might stem from the fact that the public truly expects more from its favorite brands today than ever before. In addition to giving money to charity, we expect big companies to contribute to a circular economy, or at least to be working toward it. We want to see them creating recyclable packaging and removing the extra sugar from their products. We want them to be a part of the solution, not just give a Band-Aid of money to causes that combat the ills that business creates. In this case, the skepticism is a good thing. It means we are holding corporate America to a higher standard and we believe in its power to create systemic change. We have faith in big business!

Part of the distrust hanging over the industry comes from the fact that companies need help explaining what their commitments to sustainability mean to their brands and the world. Currently, companies err on the side of either over-sharing their sustainability efforts, sometimes without authenticity, or, on the flip side, they don’t explain their sustainable practices at all, for fear of sounding inauthentic.

Interesting dilemma. Here is the solution:

The world is changing. Society needs companies to think and act sustainably. Businesses are being called on to be part of the solution to society’s largest issues from climate change to generational poverty. The government and NGOs cannot do it alone; the problems are too great. Luckily, companies have the enormous power of capitalism behind them to help find, and fund, solutions.

Yet the need for businesses to engage in anything more than creating and selling products and services to earn a profit is a relatively new idea that takes some getting used to for the stakeholders that hold them accountable. Executives need to acknowledge this in their sustainability messaging. Creating a sustainable brand is like turning a large ship. It doesn’t happen on a dime. Brands that are working to become sustainable should admit to their imperfections and express their continued desire and effort to do better. This will increase their credibility and to help them to be taken seriously for their efforts. Sustainable business is a work in progress, and companies should say so.

A brand is a corporate promise that consumers experience. The companies that are trying to do better, to be a part of the solutions to society’s greatest problems, deserve credit. As consumers, we can replace the judgment with the positive reinforcement of our purchasing power. Support the companies that are committed to a circular economy. And, just as importantly, don’t support the companies that are not. Brands have a lot of power in our country. And so do consumers. If we support sustainable companies with sales, we will be shaping our country’s future, one purchase at a time. As sustainable companies grow, their profits will encourage more companies to become responsible as well.

Attend Jackie’s workshop on Messaging for Sustainable Companies at the National Sustainable Economies Conference at Northeastern University on June 7. For info and tickets visit www.sbnmass.org.