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Why Companies are in the Mobilization Business

Writing from the United States, where the government seems to escape dysfunction only when blizzards shut its doors, it is tempting to look to business or NGOs for solutions to economic difficulties.

And in fact, many companies are aiming to build public and market support for sustainable products and services through initiatives that look a bit like political campaigns.

In some cases, that’s exactly what they are.

Following the collapse of the climate negotiations in Copenhagen, several companies—some with their chief executives leading the charge—are redoubling efforts to convince policymakers of the need for a strong and clear framework for carbon reductions. Business coalitions like the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy, and the Copenhagen Climate Council are also ramping up their advocacy for an international treaty and national legislation that finish the job left incomplete in Copenhagen.

Lobbying is not unusual for business, especially in America. But companies are not stopping there: Business is also looking to mobilize its consumers. If there was one message I heard emerging from the steady diet of sustainability discussions at Davos last month, it was the need for business to get consumers to think and act differently about their commercial choices. Everyone I spoke to, from marketing leaders to the CEOs of big brands to design gurus, agree that inspiration trumps education. The Holy Grail is getting the average person excited about the sustainability attributes of products. In an economy that continues to wobble, where people are more concerned about the rate of unemployment than the rate of climate change, that ain’t easy.

Maybe that’s why companies are resorting to new tactics to move opinions. One example is Nike. In reorganizing its sustainability team last year, the company created a position for mobilization that looks to meld government affairs and stakeholder relations. This welcome step could break down the walls that exist in many companies between traditional lobbying activities and sustainability efforts.

Another example comes from Clorox, which launched its Green Works line of products with the imprimatur of the Sierra Club. The Club’s incentive to join a corporate campaign? A clearly stated desire to "kick-start demand for eco-friendly products." When a household brand joins forces with a trusted name in the environmental movement, that’s a partnership with great potential. Political campaigns would look at that as a prime example of "free media."

Other companies are getting clever with social media. Best Buy is using its "@15" campaign to build a community of young customers to generate new ideas about sustainability and more. The company reports that it’s both creating a sticky community, and building a creative force that it can leverage to decide where Best Buy makes charitable contributions, among other things. EBay is also building a network devoted to sustainability with its 100,000-member-strong Green Team, who are actively trading ideas about how to "green" the user experience.

There is a cautionary tale here. Just last week, the New York Times ran an article questioning the legitimacy of Coca-Cola’s campaign to raise awareness about heart health. Its Olympics advertisements, deploying supermodel Heidi Klum, raised the ire of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, as well as immense skepticism from the overwhelming majority of readers who commented on the piece.

There is no doubt that companies have to tread carefully when advocating on public issues. This is especially true when they wade into issues that are related to their business and make them susceptible to claims of hypocrisy—the Coke situation.

At the end of the day, a transition to a sustainable economy will happen only if consumers and policymakers change their behaviors. That’s not likely to happen without some campaigning, and I’d rather see companies dive into these debates than stand on the sidelines.

aron cramer Aron Cramer is President and CEO of BSR, a global business network and consultancy focused on sustainability. He is also coauthor of the forthcoming book Sustainable Excellence (Rodale 2010), about the corporate responsibility strategies that drive business success.