By Jacqueline Libster (New York City)

“Cabot-karma.” It’s what Jed Davis calls the green aura that surrounds the thirteen hundred member dairy farm cooperative celebrating 90 years in business. In 2007, after seventeen years with the company, Davis became the first Director of Responsibility at Cabot. He views his role as a way to combine both practical environmental concerns with the “farm to fork” company philosophy and he’s set out to create a program that addresses both with genuine effort

The sustainability program at Cabot started to take shape in 2007 after the company noticed a trend: customers were starting to inquire about Cabot’s specific sustainability programs. They want to spend their money on products and with companies aligned with their green values.

The Old Ways of Doing Business May Not be Successful Anymore

Davis believes that in order to retain and recruit good employees, there must be a “genuine back and forth” and an on-going conversation between employers and employees. Having employees who feel good about the company they work for and who find meaningfulness in their work is a competitive advantage. Cabot recognizes that in order to have loyal employees and customers, they must treat both with respect and admiration.

Davis points to Cabot’s employee wellness efforts as an example of a way to keep employees healthy, and boost business. Cabot’s original 10,000 step program, which provided pedometers to employees, was so popular that it grew into Cabot’s Vermont to Vegas virtual challenge open to anyone through their website. Vermont to Vegas is geared towards anyone over 50 years old. The program aims to promote healthy lifestyles, including good food choices and any form of exercise, from biking, hiking, walking to golf – the virtual destination being the AARP 50+ expo in Las Vegas.

Davis points out that, not only were employees engaged, but website traffic increased. The successful program was an environmentally friendly way to draw in customers, keep people interested in the brand, and motivate employees and participants to think about good health and exercise.

Shades of Green – the “Triple Bottom Line” Approach

Davis acknowledges that consumers are “different shades of green.” “Dark-green” consumers will pay a premium for a brand that matches their green values. But for most people who are varying shades of “light-green,” quality, brand integrity and price are a few of the many factors that will help them make a final decision between two similarly priced products.

Davis cites consumer research by the Hartman Group showing that consumers react differently to price and have individual tolerances that help them decide when to a pay higher price for a brand or product that matches their values. For example, some consumers will pay a price premium for food labeled organic or free-range, while others are interested in how Cabot products get from the farm to their plate (Cabot is exploring ways to use biofuel in their shipping and transportation). Cabot tries to engage sustainability in all places along the spectrum.

From a company perspective, Davis views the bottom line issue as finding the right balance between profitability and good corporate citizenship. While every company owes a fiduciary duty to its stakeholders of an appropriate return on investment, that is only part of the picture. Davis believes in “the triple bottom line” approach – managing financial results as well as social and environmental impact. This holistic approach means the financial bottom line is part of the larger picture. Davis added, “It is the whole that needs to be sustained, not just individual parts.”

Ending the “White-Noise about Being Green”

Davis has been hearing too much “white-noise about being green.” He’d like to see an oversight commission or governing body or certification program to prevent sustainability from becoming a public relations stunt – there is a lot of room right now for companies to be misleading. He does, however, have a lot of faith in consumers. He feels they are savvy enough to ask the right questions, make the right decisions for themselves and know the difference when companies try to “greenwash” them.

For the future of corporate social responsibility efforts, Davis thinks that there will be more of a focus on the environmental bottom line and more social efforts that benefit the community as a whole. He also thinks there needs to be more context for sustainability and how companies continue to approach these challenges.

“We need to be able to honestly and genuinely answer the question, are we more sustainable today than we were yesterday?” The tagline on his email sums up his efforts: “Living within our means and ensuring the means to live.” Davis uses this as a reminder that we are the stewards of our natural capital – our limited resources. It is a statement Cabot uses to rally its sustainability efforts, a way to prioritize challenges, and a “license to operate.” As energetic and optimistic as he is, Davis sees a long way to go in improving sustainability efforts. “There is so much good work to do,” he says.