In today’s hyper-connected world, it’s hard to separate the actual company from how it is perceived online. The same holds true for a company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy. With conversations happening in social media forums and on company websites, using social media to further your business’ sustainability initiatives not only makes sense for the company, it’s expected by the public.

According to a 2009 Cone study on American consumers and new media, 44 percent of new media users are looking for, sharing, or discussing companies’ CSR efforts online, and 74 percent of them expect companies to join these conversations. Yet according to Cone’s 2010 Shared Responsibility Study, only half of those surveyed feel companies are effectively encouraging the public to speak up on corporate social and environmental practices and products.

Companies from Nestlé (recently the subject of a social media campaign against the company’s use of palm oil) to BP (recently the subject of a hoax on Twitter) are finding the public’s demands impossible to ignore.

Today, companies such as Best Buy, Timberland, Starbucks, and others are using social media in innovative ways to do everything from working with employees on ethics issues to promoting sustainable consumer choices and “crowdsourcing” solutions to everyday environmental challenges.

Training and Transparency at Best Buy

It may seem ironic that Best Buy’s Chief Ethics Officer Kathleen Edmond describes herself as “kind of private,” when her name doubles as a web domain that has received almost 500,000 page hits since its launch this time last year. But when the board tasked her office (“of one and a half,” she noted) to train Best Buy’s 150,000 global employees, an online initiative made sense. The goal was explicit: In a retail employment environment where the average turnover rate is nearly 100 percent, help reduce churn by teaching people what they can and cannot do, and what they can get fired for.

With the assistance of a colleague working on employee communications, Edmond started a blog. “The aim was teaching, transparency, and conversations,” said Edmond, who uses her blog to tell real stories about decisions ranging from termination to discipline that Best Buy has made with real employees (whose names are changed to protect anonymity). These stories help employees understand and abide by Best Buy’s code of ethics.

By design, the blog promotes a two-way conversation, which Edmond encourages by personally responding to people who comment—even when those commenting are disgruntled former employees who feel they were wrongfully terminated. One commenter, who wrote to complain about her son’s suspension from his job at Best Buy, ended her post this way: “Thanks for your transparency…especially when it comes to ethics; it’s refreshing to see it still exists out there in Big Corporations!” In response to another commenter, Edmond even provided her direct phone number.

This level of transparency and accessibility has earned Edmond and Best Buy praise from a variety of camps. In 2009, the magazine Ethisphere named Edmond one of the 100 most influential people in business ethics because of her blog, and in June, the Open Compliance and Ethic Group recognized the impact of Edmond’s blog and gave Best Buy an achievement award in governance, risk management, and compliance.

While Edmond admits that this level of openness could be risky for an organization, the culture of Best Buy is conducive to a blog such as hers. “In this culture—it’s electronics, it’s retail—we have to move fast,” Edmond said, pointing out that Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn has his own blog and is also on Twitter (and Facebook and Wikipedia). Best Buy also had a successful precedent for online employee engagement with its now-defunct “Blue Shirt Nation” site.

The benefit of having these ethics discussions online, Edmond said, “is the ability to amplify that one-on-one conversation across hundreds of people.” Training a large group of people with a single action may be the biggest benefit of the blog, but it’s also hard to quantify. How do you measure “prevention,” which, by its very nature, is something that never happened? One indicator of the blog’s effectiveness may be the fact that Best Buy’s turnover rate is about 20 percent below the average for retail employees in general.

On her blog, nobody but Edmond monitors the comments, and to date, she has had to censor only two posts—once because one of the employees revealed proprietary sales data, and another time because a commenter included the surname of someone he believed had done him wrong, so Edmond removed the name to avoid potential libel issues.

Since launching the blog in August of 2009, Edmond has become bolder about the content she posts. “I was really just sticking my toe in, moving more toward throwing out the conversations in addition to the actual stories,” she said. Now she is posting some provocative questions to prompt discussions and, she hopes, employees’ own thinking on subjects like ethics and acting in accordance with their values.

In spite of the blog’s current success, though, she is aware that social media platforms are ephemeral. “When I first started, I did an internal wiki and had folks help me rewrite the gifts policy,” she said. “The wiki is now dead internally. Two years from now, this blog may not be the deal. What’s hot hasn’t been invented yet.”

Timberland Starts a Movement

For Timberland, it started with the notion that consumers care about more than just their shoes; they want to engage with the company in a way that makes a difference. To encourage this, Timberland developed a collection of footwear and apparel under the label “Earthkeeper” and also launched a movement that encourages citizens to incorporate social and environmental actions into their everyday lives. Today, the Earthkeeper network totals more than 300,000 people, and the company’s Earthkeeper collection of footwear and apparel has grown to be a significant portion of Timberland’s product offerings.

Not surprisingly, Timberland was able to mobilize a group that large by catching them online. The company’s branded website, www.earthkeeper.com, allows the community to take action on sustainability through personal pledges (in areas like home, transportation, lifestyle, and food), responsible shopping, tree-planting, and involvement in events. Site visitors can also learn about Timberland’s other CSR efforts by reading its sustainability report, listening to podcasts of CEO Jeff Swartz’s quarterly stakeholder engagement calls, and visiting the company’s Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter sites.

According to Timberland CSR Strategy and Reporting Manager Beth Holzman, the company’s CSR social media strategy closely mirrors its main CSR strategy, which covers four material impact areas: climate change and energy, product stewardship, workplaces (including labor and human rights), and community engagement. As these areas relate to social media, Timberland uses its position as a consumer-facing company to interact directly with its customers and other stakeholders through reporting, storytelling, blogging, online dialogues, and online opportunities for action such as those on Earthkeeper.com.

Often cited as one of the first companies to experiment with social media tools in a public way, Timberland launched Earthkeeper.com in the first half of 2008. While many companies, including Timberland, draw an audience through the big three of social media—Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—Timberland also created its own branded site to ensure that its CSR messages were reaching the company’s consumers directly.

Previously, Timberland used platforms such as the social responsibility website Justmeans to communicate its quarterly CSR reports. Working with Justmeans offered an important lesson in development and media tracking, as the company learned that specific audiences visit different kinds of sites. For example, most stakeholders engaging on Justmeans are already interested in sustainability; Timberland wanted to access a larger community.

When it comes to social media, there are two schools of thought on accessing an audience: Go to where the people are, or have them come to you. Aiming for broad reach, Timberland does both—going to where the people are on major platforms and engaging its own existing customers via Earthkeeper.com.

The company draws consumers to Earthkeeper.com by inviting them to exchange ideas in compelling discussions with mainstream voices who have what Holzman calls “cross-over appeal”—including Andrea Asch of Ben & Jerry’s, GreenBiz’s Joel Makower, Aveda President Dominique Conseil, and even New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Just as Edmond’s ethics blog provides a forum for dialogue, a section on Earthkeeper.com called “Voices of Challenge,” encourages consumers to help brainstorm solutions for challenges that are related to the company’s four core CSR pillars.

Recently, Timberland asked visitors to weigh in on how to improve the lives of workers—by raising wages or focusing on the “sustainable living environment” and investing in community infrastructure such as health care and education. While the company cannot possibly implement solutions to every question, the commentary does catalyze internal discussions at Timberland. When it came to the question about wages, Holzman said, “Some of the feedback has prompted us to look at our specific approach. Timberland hasn’t, in the past, had a specific policy on living wage. But some of the criticism we received on the site forced us to look at the different levers of change in the global dialogue about wages.”

In spite of its significant online presence, the company does not have a formal social media policy beyond its general corporate code of ethics and the media training that all employees undergo. Social media, which developed organically, has been an extension of that. “We’ve been learning as we go,” Holzman said. “But we do expect all Timberland employees to engage in social media the same way they would engage in other conversations as representatives of our company.”

To measure the effectiveness of its social media efforts around CSR, Timberland looks at a variety of factors. As many experts in social media will say, there is not one simple metric to track return on investment. While Timberland does collect quantitative statistics such as how many people come to the site, how many engage in the online dialogues on the website and through platforms like Twitter and Facebook, and how many sign up for petitions, Holzman also uses a qualitative lens to evaluate the impact of discussions on Earthkeeper.com. “What type of commentary are we getting? Is it robust, productive, and constructive, or is it just a bunch of people commenting at a superficial level?” she said.

She pointed to the company’s campaign last December, around the time of COP-15, when the CEO brought an online petition calling on leaders at Copenhagen to authorize climate legislation. The company coupled this online campaign with in-store communications and other print advertising, and Timberland was rewarded not only with a lot of media hits but also increased sales of its Earthkeeper products. “This is an early indicator of what we hope will improve the use of different media tools to drive the bottom line for the company,” said Holzman.

Crowdsourcing Innovative Solutions for Starbucks

Starbucks’ ubiquitous white paper cups with the round evergreen logo have come to symbolize today’s fast-paced society: We can keep this pace because we’re fueled with coffee-on-the-go. The drawback, of course, is the immense amount of waste created by the disposable cups. Today, we use more than 500 billion disposable cups globally, and it’s unknown how many of those end up in landfills. It’s not that coffee or even Starbucks drinkers are the biggest perpetrators (indeed, Starbucks generates only about 4 billion of those cups), but given the high profile of the brand in this market—and the company’s own goal to serve all of its coffee in reusable or recyclable cups by 2015—Starbucks decided to address this sustainability concern by helping launch the “betacup challenge” in May of 2009 to create a convenient alternative to the reusable coffee cup.

Given the high-tech ring to the name of the initiative, it makes sense that the challenge took place online. The contest, for which Starbucks provided the US$20,000 purse, worked like this: Individuals submitted their ideas to a website that allowed other participants to rank and comment on the solutions. The campaign generated 430 ideas (as well as 1,500 updates on those ideas), ranging from edible, Jelly Bean-flavored cups to a biodegradable vessel with a tasty biscuit as a lid.

One June 15, a jury composed of designers and others (including representatives from Starbucks) selected one individual for a US$10,000 award, and the contest’s remaining US$10,000 prize money was divided among the people who submitted the top five ideas as rated by the community. In the end, the jury gave the top prize to someone with an idea called the “Karma Cup,” in which everyone who brings in a reusable mug marks a chalkboard next to the register, and the 10th person to bring in a reusable mug receives a free item. The top community rating went to a group that suggested a 100 percent biodegradable and reusable cup made of rice husks, the waste from global rice production.

This wasn’t Starbucks’ first experiment with crowdsourcing. The company’s “My Starbucks Idea” initiative asks the public to share, vote on, and discuss their ideas for Starbucks. Jim Hanna, Starbucks’ director of environmental impact, who was involved with betacup and is also one of the company’s five official Tweeters, said Starbucks joined betacup in part to increase customers’ participation in the company’s goal of reducing the use of disposable cups. Since 1985, the company has offered a 10 cent drink discount for customers who used their own cups, but, Hanna said, that wasn’t driving changes in customer behavior. “So we decided to use our experience with social media and the new phenomenon of crowdsourcing to put out a challenge: How can we get our customers to use fewer cups?” he said.

Interestingly, in spite of the fact that this was a competitive contest, the community seemed to understand that the main “prize” was not the purse money but solving the disposable cup challenge. “You would see competitors providing great ideas to other folks,” Hanna said about the contest. “We actually saw people evolve and change their ideas and go through three or four iterations before settling on a final presentation.”

Ultimately, Starbucks is looking at all of these ideas (some of which reaffirmed solutions the company already had under consideration) as a way to meet its goals. Hanna pointed out that because of the differences in recycling infrastructure and access in different parts of the world, to truly succeed, the company will likely need to adopt several solutions to meet its goals—which was another benefit of hosting an online contest that generated ideas from all parts of the globe.

Social media experts have identified this type of open collaboration, what Justmeans CEO Martin Smith calls “crowdsourcing of innovation,” as the future of social media. The collaboration GreenXchange operates with a similar model: Companies meet online to share intellectual property and business models in the name of sustainability. The theory is that the collective benefits of sharing this information outweigh the risks of giving up control on intellectual property rights, patents, and potentially profitable ideas.

“We considered betacup highly, highly successful in terms of the amount of ideas, the interaction, and the level of awareness we raised around the use of single cups,” Hanna said. “You could never buy that with US$20,000.” In the end, he added, while this contest aligned with Starbucks’ own sustainability goals, “We’re not trying to create just a Starbucks solution. We’re trying to create something that will be of use to all companies.” Which is, after all, the point of crowdsourcing.

The Future Looks Unpredictable

With new social media platforms launching almost every week, it’s impossible to know which ones will be most effective when applied to sustainability. When Timberland first started using social media, the company rolled out a series of cool games on YouTube. Unfortunately, no one was going to YouTube to play games; they were going there to watch videos. The lesson, said Holzman: “We needed to learn what type of community shows up and uses which types of tools and for what purpose.”

Even though it is hard to predict the next big thing in social media that will be useful to companies in achieving their CSR goals, there are some lessons about using social media for sustainability that are likely to last. We’ll explore those ideas in the second part of our series on social media next week.