By Ted Coine, exclusive to Sustainable Business Forum as part of the Sustainable Leadership series.


My career has been dedicated to spreading this message for years now: Doing the right thing pays. I first articulated that notion in relation to customer service: When a company treats its customers like they matter, those customers come back for more – and happily bring their friends.

What I quickly learned as I studied the most customer-centric – and the most profitable – companies, though, is that this ethic isn’t limited to customer service at all. It’s a question of culture, and culture is without any doubt a matter of leadership. The leader steers the culture, and the culture steers the business.

So I refined my focus to concentrate on other business leaders who get this idea. I study them. I track them over time. I share their stories in the hopes of spreading this concept.

This is how I began writing for the Sustainable Business Forum (SBF). Sustainable leadership is inextricably married to Corporate Social Responsibility, to doing the right thing.

And as I wrote last time, doing the right thing cannot be a part-time endeavor – at least, not if a company wants to pull it off. We consumers can smell sincerity a mile away, and we’re drawn to it. Social media is enabling the unfettered communication among all stakeholders, which means it is amplifying this ability of we consumers to lift the veil of a company’s marketing and look to the truth beneath. 20th-Century leaders are completely baffled by this – I’ve spoken at length to many, and I can confirm it. Executives in their forties, fifties, and sixties didn’t grow up with this transparency, and most are still only vaguely aware of its scope or power.

My last exclusive post for SBF was on the topic of doing the right thing consistently, not just when it’s convenient. Observation of Corporate Social Responsibility in action has me convinced that if a company is to get any benefit from CSR, they have to actually mean it. Lip service to ethical management is not going to benefit a company much at all in this Social age. For the public (and your own employees) to see you as good, you have to be good all the time, even when you think no one’s watching.

Because today, someone’s always watching. And that person has a network that spans millions. With a tweet or two, or a Facebook post or a YouTube video, a single person busting your company for shoddy ethics can turn into a viral movement that erases millions of dollars of advertising spent to make your firm look good. (See the SBF series Social Media and Transparency for more on this.)

As 2011 eases into 2012, old school leaders have a new reality to grapple with – or to enjoy, depending on their CSR decisions.  

…All of which brings us to tomatoes. Yes, tomatoes. Please bear with me while I explain.

Thirty minutes east of my home in Naples, Florida, lies the heart of America’s tomato farmland, Immokalee. For all of its pride and promise, Immokalee is one of the poorest places in the United States. That is because a large number of its residents are migrant farm workers – tomato pickers – and their families. These people live well below the poverty line. Visiting their homes, it is hard to remember that one is still in America.

Several years ago the pickers formed an organization, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), and asked their employers, the growers, for one penny more per pound of tomatoes picked.

One penny. Imagine the effect that would have on your weekly grocery bill. Imagine the added expense an extra penny per pound would have on the cost of a hamburger at your favorite fast food restaurant.

The growers refused, and showed no signs of budging. So the CIW hatched an audacious plan, and went straight to the customers of the growers with their request for that penny: first Taco Bell, then McDonald’s, then Burger King. Each company resisted to some degree, then relented. The growers refused to pass along the extra penny for years, but they finally relented.

Now, the CIW is locked in a similar struggle with Publix, one of America’s largest supermarket chains, and with Trader Joe’s. And following the pattern of the fast food giants, these two companies are stonewalling. It seems that penny is more than either is willing to pay for ethically-sourced food.

It’s a fascinating, troubling clash of wills to observe.  A clash that seems especially inconsistent with the reputation of firm like Trader Joe’s, which has branded itself as highly ethical, as dedicated to CSR.

In my next exclusive post here at SBF, on December 2, we’ll dive into the struggle CIW has been fighting for that extra penny. Hopefully by then both Trader Joe’s and Publix will have responded to my queries.

My underlying question? Can a company be Good just some of the time, and still prosper from a reputation as a responsible actor in society? Or is Corporate Social Responsibility a matter of consistently-applied principles, of doing the right thing even when no one’s looking?