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Sustainability that sustains the bottom line

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Good profits trump good intentions as motivators for the best corporate responsibility and sustainability programs. And that's a good thing, says green marketing guru Susan McPherson.

One word might leap to mind when you take in Susan McPherson, director of global marketing at Fenton, the large public interest communications firm: “Pollyannaish.”

Consider the evidence: McPherson directs corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs for Fenton's clientele, helping organizations launch projects such as providing relief to flood victims or promoting recycling. Cheerfully bright clothing drapes her petite frame, and she speaks in a youthful voice, with a charming habit of regularly referring to people by first name. On her office whiteboard, she has saved a large drawing of a flower in red and purple markers, a playful memento from her partner Fabien Cousteau, grandson of iconic oceanographer and explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

It's actually McPherson who uses the "Pollyanna" word to refer to common misconceptions about herself and her field. Companies don't launch social impact projects solely for the sake of goodwill, she says. Or even for the sake of appearing “good.” They do it because it's good for business.

Sitting across from me at her metal-topped desk, McPherson says companies must prioritize sustainability and social consciousness as a matter of survival. "Smart businesses will benefit if they do capitalize on positive behavior,” she tells me, “if they want to attract good employees, if they want to keep good employees.

There's also the matter of environmental reality, which she credits for inspiring the rise of corporate efforts to manage natural resources more responsibly with an eye toward long-term sustainability. “If they just deplete all the resources they need, they'll be out of business,” McPherson states. “I do believe as climate change continues to rear its head, companies are going to have to plan for it. And I think Sandy, as horrible as it was, it put climate change on the radar, you can't hide from it.  You've got to be putting in long-term positive changes if you want to be around in 20 to 30 years."

“Oh my God,” she interrupts herself, embarrassed. “I didn't even offer you anything to drink.” I assure her that the receptionist has already bridged the subject.

McPherson insists that being nice really is just part her personality, but she doesn't expect the same from businesses. She recognizes that making money has to remain the priority. “In a perfect world, I would love it if companies could just be angelic,” she tells me, chin resting in her hand. “But they're a business, and they need to provide returns to their shareholders and pay their employees. Obviously, we live in a world where the minute they report less-than-good earnings to Wall Street, we know what happens.”

Skepticism is part of McPherson's job. Fenton's first client was Nelson Mandela, and many of the firm's longest clients are non-profits. Retaining the loyalty of those alliances has taken careful decision-making. When the “green-washing” trend began in the late 1990's and early 2000's, Fenton had to scrutinize the client list to make sure its own clients weren't at fault.

“You had a lot of corporations saying, 'Wow we're really going to benefit from saying we're green,' ” McPherson remembers. “When in actuality they weren't changing their behavior, they were just building an advertising campaign around doing so. Fenton pulled out of the corporate space entirely. Because we just couldn't be credible to our legacy clients.

"Fast forward to 2010, 2011, when we finally are seeing companies look at [sustainability] from an entirely systemic place. Where instead of it just being the advertising division deciding to do a cause marketing program, we're seeing companies involve all of their stakeholders in the process. And in doing so, having a more holistic look at what corporate responsibility is.”

For an organization's social campaign to feel authentic, it must relate to the company's mission, McPherson says. For example, Fenton helped Warner Brothers develop a project to help famine victims in the Horn of Africa. Warner Brothers's mission of storytelling was a big part of its campaign to share these people's stories with the rest of the world using League of Justice characters.

Fenton also helped cosmetics company Avon develop its "Hello Green Tomorrow" campaign. It makes sense for Avon to care about sustainably-sourced products, McPherson says, because otherwise it risks running out of resources to make them. Fenton also found that women feel more comfortable buying Avon's products when they know they're responsibly produced.

McPherson joined Fenton in summer 2010, just when it began taking on corporate clients again. “We find our value-add in the marketplace,” she explains, “is we can bring a very credible and authentic voice to a company because we understand what an activist would be looking at.”

But McPherson vets companies for their genuine commitment to responsible practices. “We wouldn't work for a company that doesn't have a sustainable business model,” she says, because it would jeopardize Fenton's own reputation for social good.

Public exposure afforded by the Internet has made corporate missteps costlier than ever before. “In today's world where everything is transparent,” McPherson notes, clasping her hands together, “[corporations] can't hide anything anymore.”

McPherson worked in communications for more than two decades before joining Fenton. At the age of 44, she had hit a burnout point. Since she had always been involved with nonprofits in her spare time, she wondered whether she could combine her corporate experience with more humanitarian efforts. “How can I take the best of doing good, and use businesses as a way to make that happen?” McPherson remembers asking herself.

A friend pointed her towards Fenton, where she advocated her way to a job teaching organizations how they can simultaneously improve their communities, and their profits. “And what's so beautiful about the role that I have now is that I get to do it all together,” she smiles.

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Audrey Quinn

Contributing Writer

Audrey Quinn is a Brooklyn-based multimedia journalist focused on health, tech and the economy. Her radio stories can be heard on Marketplace, Studio 360, PRI's The World, NPR's Latino USA, Deutsche Welle Radio and The Believer Magazine podcast. In addition to her work with CBS Interactive she produces multimedia science stories for online publications and is a teaching assistant at the Transom Story Workshop. Her investigative work has been awarded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure