The national reckoning around racial injustice has caught many by surprise. But Laura Sutphen—a corporate social responsibility expert advising global brands—has been navigating the “pressure around purpose” for decades. She joins Beata Kirr to discuss best in class leaders, progress over perfection, and how you can separate “purpose lite” brands from those truly committed to promoting social change.
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Hello and welcome to On Purpose, a podcast about responsible investing and intentionally aligning your portfolio and your values. I'm your host, Travis Allen, Senior Investment Strategist and National Managing Director at Bernstein.
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Amid the national reckoning around racial injustice, we've seen a number of companies issue strong statements of solidarity, but how can you tell which companies are selling purpose-lite versus those that are truly committed to social change? Today, we're featuring a conversation that took place on our Women & Wealth podcast between my colleague Beata Kirr and Laura Sutphen, an expert in corporate social responsibility. Laura works with public relations firm Golin, advising clients including two Fortune 5 companies.
00:50 - 01:13
As you can imagine, her phone has been ringing off the hook these days, but she took time to explain what a true commitment to social purpose looks like. Here's Beata and Laura. Well, I'm so excited to be here today with Laura Sutphen, who I'll first introduced as a friend in Wilmette where we both live, and our boys are friends.
01:13 - 01:33
But second of all, I will introduce as the executive vice president and global head of social purpose at Golin. And those of you that haven't heard of Golin, it's a very substantial PR agency and has frequently been cited as one of the most influential drivers of PR campaigns.
01:33 - 02:07
And Laura and her role is advising companies really around the world on their corporate social responsibility and has had a multi-decade career doing that and in recent past, and currently is frankly advising two of the top Fortune 5 companies. So given the moment of where we are, I'm particularly excited to have Laura talk to us today about her career, about where we are at in the world in terms of corporate social responsibility and what has changed.
02:07 - 02:27
So first of all, thank you, Laura. Thank you. It's so fun to be doing this with you, Beata. So I probably didn't do your responsibility and bio enough justice, but give me a little bit more color on interesting stuff along the way in your career journey. Wow.
02:27 - 02:29
That could take quite a long time.
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So I, I've been working in the space of social impact since long before it was popular, and especially now in today's culture where it's really a necessary tool for brands. I come from a family of environmental activists and it was always a part of the way that I saw the world and watching the world from even, from a young age. Once I entered into the professional world, it was the projects that had a social good imperative. And this was in the early 90s. They were the projects that I raised my hands for.
03:05 - 03:22
If it was a study on breast cancer for the Department of Defense, or if it was launching the first antiretroviral drug for the treatment of HIV/AIDS, those are the projects that really excited me. And it was sort of the clue to what my future held.
03:22 - 03:54
So I've been working on these topics since the mid-1990s. I launched a film for Turner Network Television called George Wallace, and the film centered on issues of racism and redemption. That was in the late 1990s. And here we are all these years later, still having that conversation. I launched the emergency reproductive drug Plan B and helped bring that to market and to women around the world. I've worked for several agencies. And then I also owned my own for 11 years where this was all we did.
03:54 - 04:19
We focus exclusively on social impact issues, working with tech brands and pharma brands and big social justice nonprofits. So. I think it's fair to say, yeah, first, you've had a lot of experience from a lot of different seats, with a lot of different types of organizations. And that's interesting in itself. But I think it's also fair to say that you've been doing this long before it was popular to do it.
04:19 - 04:42
And I will say that the reason for the conversation today is, of course, not only are we having a society-wide conversation around systemic racism and racial injustice and long overdue, may I say, but we are seeing a real movement into socially responsible investing and everybody calls it something different.
04:42 - 04:59
We focus on it as purpose driven portfolios and environmental social governance driven portfolios. And alongside that comes much more robust programming at companies in terms of their corporate social responsibility offices.
04:59 - 05:19
And I think I want to start there with really asking the question, given how long you've been in the field, what do you see as the biggest changes that are occurring today in these large companies that you work with? Yeah, it is so interesting what the landscape looks like now versus what it looked like even just three years ago.
05:19 - 05:29
Pre pandemic. The territory was very different. I think they're are a few common themes that I've noticed just in the last six months.
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2020 is what I'm calling kind of the year of the reckoning when it applies to brands and social impact. The first is there's a lot more pressure around purpose, not your brand purpose, which is sort of the reason why you exist, but your commitment to a greater social purpose. The pandemic has put a spotlight on the role of these brands and what their real commitments are. And it raises all sorts of stakes around the idea of a true social purpose, which will
06:03 - 06:11
result versus what a lot of brands have done in a pre-covid world, which I always called purpose lite.
06:11 - 06:26
It's those brands that want to dip their toe in the water, but they, and they want to commit to something, but they don't want to give up anything as part of that greater commitment. The pandemic and then the George Floyd murder,
06:26 - 07:01
and so much of the racial justice action that has happened over the last several weeks is really putting a different kind of spotlight on the brands that are taking true action versus those that want to continue to stay lite. At Golin, I think in the last three weeks, we've counseled more than 35 brands on how to handle the internal and external issues around social justice issues and equality and help them create plans to get their own house in order, right, on the inside and how to take the right steps on the outside. So this has been a really interesting and a new level of a forcing mechanism.
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And that's, that's different. That's very new. That's very different.
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The other big trend that I'm noticing is the role of climate justice and the intersectionality of climate on how the pandemic has shown us what climate justice really looks like. You can't breathe the air in Los Angeles, right. So it's showing us that there is a direct impact between human interaction with the environment and the impacts on the environment.
07:32 - 07:51
I like a lot of the terms you just used. The quote I'm going to ascribe to you from now on, the pressure around purpose and purpose-lite, I think, are very important because we see that. We're going to come back to that in terms of companies and metrics.
07:51 - 08:21
And how do we know that a company is taking ESG seriously versus accidentally, perhaps. And now, and you said several times that it is different, that the urgency is different, that the transparency feels different, that there's a spotlight effectively on companies. Why do you think it is different this time? And do you think this will last? I hope so. I'm really, really hoping so.
08:22 - 08:54
I do think it's going to last. One of the biggest changes that I see, it has less to do with brands and more to do with everyday people. There is much less of a willingness to allow a brand to go by without checking them on their intentions. And if they're, as I like to say, if their insides are matching their outsides, right, they're faking it till they make it, or they want to do sort of this, create a piece of content that makes them look like a good corporate citizen, but then they're not really actually taking meaningful action to back that up.
08:54 - 08:59
I mean, I come from an activist mindset. I'm comfortable with discomfort.
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And I think sometimes a brand needs to get uncomfortable to understand how it needs to change and evolve to meet current culture. And current culture has less and less patience to give to brands to be on a journey. And I love this. I think that this is, we will start to be able to separate those that are truly intentional about change and being a part of positive social change versus those that are sort of trying to sit under the radar screen.
09:31 - 10:00
You know, as we record this, there are some really prominent companies in the headlines and we're going to avoid mentioning them right now, but that are really struggling with this. Right, that are trying to do the right thing for multiple stakeholders and showing the challenge that that can come with, that the stakeholders perhaps in the boardroom are different than the stakeholders in their consumer base, are different than the stakeholders elsewhere.
10:01 - 10:33
And I guess what I hear you saying is perhaps that stakeholder audience really will have to broaden for all companies, whether they like it or not, because the consumer is moving faster than that. Yeah. And they're calling brands out on social media more than ever before. I've got a couple of examples of some brands that waited too long to put a statement out on how they're standing with Black Lives Matter and racial justice issues.
10:33 - 10:52
And if you read through the comments in some of those examples, they're getting skewered. And it isn't necessarily for what they said. It was for how long they delayed in being a part of the solution and putting their work out into the world. Because no one is perfect. Right.
10:52 - 11:15
But they waited almost five weeks to put a statement out there. Five weeks. I mean, we're on to the next wave of COVID and we're on to the next sort of evolution of how brands and individuals are confronting systemic racism and their own privilege and trying to reconcile those things.
11:15 - 11:35
And if you wait that long, you are already in the danger zone of being called out. And I also think that there is a disparity between those in the boardroom who may be people our age or a little older versus those that really have impatience around action.
11:35 - 12:02
For example, there's a couple of recent studies that have shown Gen Z now sees the Black Lives Matter movement as the second most impactful event of their entire life behind only the coronavirus outbreak. And two-thirds of Gen Z says that how businesses react and express themselves regarding Black Lives Matter and social justice issues, it will permanently affect their decision to buy from them in the future.
12:02 - 12:37
So this is bottom line. This is purchase intent. This is loyalty to a brand. So what you said about one of the biggest mistakes you've seen so far is five weeks was too long, way too long. So what was the right time that you thought companies should have responded in? And then what other mistakes did you see companies make with today's focus? It's a hard question because it requires the brand to have done some of this pre-work before preparing for when something like this may happen. Right.
12:37 - 12:55
And it exposes them to all sorts of risk around their diversity and inclusion approach. And do they have transparent goals around hiring for diversity? And how aggressive are those goals? It makes them look twice at the role of corporate responsibility and reporting.
12:55 - 13:25
There are brands who do this very well and who have committed to those issues long before we are in a state that we're in now. So the way to respond and the pace with which they respond can be a lot shorter. There's an ice cream that we all love who shall remain nameless, who may do quite a lot of activism, their response is best in class, but they have been working on issues around social justice, climate justice for decades.
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Right. So they were already poised and the leap from where they have been to where they want to go was very easy.
13:33 - 14:08
Other brands who have maybe never considered these topics before or who have real internal work to do, there's a lot of risk. There's a lot of hesitation. There's one brand, we've been talking to them about some of these topics for four years, and they're getting questions from their shareholders, and they don't know how to answer them. So they're now they are woke to these topics and want to engage. But the time from when we counseled them to when... it's going to be several more months before they respond.
14:08 - 14:11
Right. So have they put out any response?
14:11 - 14:24
They have put out nothing. And I'm assuming they're not a consumer company, so perhaps they don't feel as big of a backlash from their base at this point. No, but they are a consumer company.
14:24 - 14:43
That's what's interesting about it. They've done a couple of things. They're trying to do the right things like many brands, but it's complex. So the risks and rewards are really hard to balance and figure out what the right roadmap looks like. It's not as easy as it seems.
14:45 - 15:14
And they're also appealing to a number of different masters internally. Board of directors versus a C-Suite that wants to go in a different direction versus a brand director who wants to take care of his or her brand. And that's a tension that has existed historically and as you said, is really coming to a head as the bottom line is the one great equalizer for all of those stakeholders. And we suppose time will tell.
15:15 - 15:33
But what we're seeing on our side is enormous interest in investing in strategies that focus on metrics. And the metrics start with climate, but also include governance and also include diversity.
15:33 - 15:59
And one is not more important than the other, but one has been more available than the other. And we'll spend a lot of time on our podcast dedicated to responsible investing and talking about the evolution of metrics and where we are today. But... we feel that progress has been made in diversity metrics, but we're nowhere near where we need to be to be able to really report robustly.
15:59 - 16:18
And it's so fascinating to hear you confirm what we're feeling, but from such a different angle in the end, working with many of the same companies that, of course, you're working with the boardroom executive team to move them forward. And we're investing in these companies. And that brings me to another question.
16:18 - 16:52
I know that you've done work over your career with the energy industry in the corporate social responsibility sphere. And I'm curious on your perspective in that space in particular and what's changed in boardrooms and where you feel the energy industry is at, on the broad sphere of ESG right now. That's an interesting question. I will out myself being, coming from a family of progressive environmentalists, I have always resisted working in energy.
16:52 - 17:17
And over the last few years I found myself counseling on sustainability strategy with one of them, two of them. And we just started work with a third. And it's really interesting. One of them is, leans hard into sustainability as a core part of their corporate proposition. They are not a US-based company, so they're more willing to take risks. Right.
17:18 - 17:34
One is extremely conservative and is evidence-based and there are conflicting viewpoints of the evidence inside of their leadership team. And to even utter the word climate change is tough.
17:35 - 17:54
And then there's another who I was delighted and surprised to find that they had a set of 2025 goals that are pretty rock solid, and CEO who is very committed to these issues and is sort of working inside, from the inside out.
17:54 - 18:17
But what is so interesting about your response is that it confirms our point of view in the sense that when we measure metrics for... different portfolios have different metrics that we're reporting on in our purpose-driven advise. But one of the key metrics that we report on is something that's called ESG momentum, which is about how different you look today than you looked 12 months ago.
18:17 - 18:48
And that gives us a sign of how you're going to look in the future. And we think this is very important because what tends to happen in the ESG space today from the public investing perspective is a lot of focus on the same sectors of the good players with the metrics that are already achieved. But if you do that, then you're not acknowledging that there are specific companies within a sector, like you've identified, that understand the challenges and have committed to evolution. And in the energy sector in particular, we need everybody to participate.
18:48 - 19:02
So it's really important to recognize momentum. And one thing that I always like to say, and I'll stick with a lot of brands and energy as a great example, they will say, but what about our legacy of what we've done, right?
19:03 - 19:32
How do we reconcile? And manufacturing is another great one. It's like we've made stuff that has not benefited the Earth or has not been of value to society. How do we go from here to there? And what I like to counsel those kinds of clients is, it's better to be on the journey than not to even have taken the first step forward. And what an investor or what a consumer is going to look for as validation of your journey is progress over perfection.
19:33 - 19:54
The brand that waits to get it all right will never benefit from their lessons along the way. And look, consumers want to hear authentically from brands that may not be getting it right, but know that they're committed. And it is more impactful from a communications perspective to communicate the journey and show, we made great gains here,
19:54 - 20:15
but you know what, this year was really hard. Global pandemic, we had to make things that, you know, weren't necessarily beneficial. But here's how we're offsetting. Here's how we're readjusting for the future. That buys you way more credit as being on the right path than holding back and staying conservative. Progress over perfection.
20:15 - 20:22
Another great phrase, Laura Sutphen has come... A way to live your life too—progress over perfection.
20:24 - 20:57
I think you quasi-answered my next question in your prior response. But I'm going to ask you to hone in on a little bit more that... I really spent a lot of time with our Women & Wealth conversation. How do you advise women to really put their money where their mouth is, if this is what they care about, that question of authenticity and purpose-lite. I mean, what are the signs that you look for to say whether a brand really is a brand you should trust?
20:57 - 21:14
Yeah, first off, don't look at their Instagram. Because there's PR geniuses that help them. No, what's more instructive is to read the comments. If you are going to look at something like that. But look, I was dazzled by a stat that I read recently.
21:14 - 21:48
One in five Americans are reading a company's corporate responsibility report. There are CSR annual sustainability or CSR report, and women far and away make up the bulk of that one in five. They're also far and away the purchase drivers of the household. So they hold immense power. So there's a few things that I do personally and I would suggest. The first, the best place to start, look, look up their CSR report. That is a simple Google, right, X brand CSR report and it should come up.
21:48 - 22:18
It's always a year behind, right, if you are 2020, they are reporting on 2019 results. They should have in the first five pages of that report, you don't have to read the whole thing because some of them are, like, snooze fests, but they should have clearly set goals and a high degree of transparency around their strategy for climate, for inclusion, for the percentage of women in leadership. Those are all things that they're supposed to report on, right. Do they have goals?
22:18 - 22:27
Yes. Do... are they easy to digest and understand? Yes. Are they set to 2025 or 2030? So there's a short time frame with which they're attaining success.
22:27 - 22:53
Yes. OK, now go to their Facebook page, their Instagram post and see if they're talking about the same issues in the same way. You will instantly learn if their insides are matching their outside. And then the last thing that I look for is, and this is always a requirement for me, is how many women are in their executive ranks and on their board, and how many people of color, specifically black people, are on their board and their executive suite.
22:53 - 23:23
If there are zero or there are one, that is a huge red flag for me because it doesn't align with my value set. That doesn't align with how I am choosing to support brands in those ways. Are there companies that you love and think are doing an amazing job that you think you would put up and go ahead and name them? I'm curious who you think the stars are here. You know, the Ben and Jerry's of the world, the Patagonia's of the world.
23:24 - 23:44
It's a double edged sword with them because they were built that way. But they do do it right. They are doing it right. They have been committed to these things for a really long time. Even large brands like a major retailer who shall remain nameless but is all around the world. They're doing it right.
23:44 - 24:16
It is so much more complex when you are as big as you are with the myriad of other things that you have to square in order to make a really aggressive climate statement or set a really strong diversity goals. There are also brands, they have a legacy for operating at scale and making change at scale around these issues. And I know for a fact that there are a few of those that are not communicating because they are trying to develop something so significant that it really will address,
24:17 - 24:22
It'll be seismic change at scale, not just significant. And that takes a minute.
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Airbnb has, I thought what they did with the directory for the 25 percent of their workforce that they had to lay off and they announced that they were creating a directory with everybody who is getting laid off, their background, their LinkedIn, their assets, what they were really good at. But then alongside that, they also committed significant time of their entire corporate recruiting team to helping those people who got laid off find a new job before the end of the year.
24:52 - 25:01
That's a company that leads with a human-first supportive way of approaching something that was really challenging during a pandemic. Right.
25:02 - 25:37
I think that that's really smart. Netflix has done some incredible stuff around, and they've been doing it for a while, around Black leadership and their whole division around creating movies and and creative content that is Black-led and black-informed. I think that there's brilliant work happening over there and those are the heroes in my mind that are really, really standing out. And it makes me, every single time I have the Netflix streaming service, I'm more proud. I'm like, they're down with my issues. Like this is,
25:37 - 25:55
they have been moving in the right direction, and they continue to make good moves that way. And now you're just rationalizing your binge watching. Pretty much. [...] It's all good. So let me pivot a little bit.
25:55 - 26:27
I mean, this is just been awesome to sit down with you. I want to pivot a bit for the audience that's listening to this on our Women & Wealth platform and really ask you my favorite question that I ask all of my guests on this show, which is around the idea of making money meaningful. And we talk about how we work with our clients to do that, to help them assign values to money and really be intentional. Much like you advocate for people to choose their brands,
26:27 - 26:55
we advocate for people to know where their money's going and then, and choose that. But I'm curious how you have thought about that in terms of your own financial values with your family or lessons that you heard growing up and what was imparted to you? Wow, so tracking back, I grew up in the Midwest. I grew up outside of Cleveland.
26:56 - 27:18
My parents didn't talk about this a lot. I got mixed messages. I never had lessons on financial literacy or credit card debt or investment strategy. My mom was a spender and my dad was very conservative with money. So, again, the mixed messages. And it always kind of felt scary growing up, like just because it always was the topic that never got talked about.
27:18 - 27:46
My husband totally different. His father, an incredible strategist around investments. It was thoughtful and sound and the common dialogue. So when I was in my thirties and started my agency, when it was doing pretty well, and in one thing, I'm like, wow, more shoes. But on the other side, there's like this little niggling thing in the back of my head, like, I'm not doing this right.
27:46 - 28:06
I don't know what I'm doing. I don't know how to do this right. So I ended up working with a female investment team to help me learn the basics of investment strategy and an IRA versus a 401 K versus how much percentage I should be putting away and how to choose. And that was more than 10 years ago.
28:06 - 28:37
So that really helped me align my values and the way that I saw the world as a woman with how to look at money in totally different ways. My husband and I are now having investment discussions where we never had them before. One of the things that we're trying to do with our son is to include him in those discussions. In the same way that I look for transparency in a brand around their ESG or their social impact commitments, I'm trying to create the same level of transparency in the way we talk to our kid, and we're already starting him on this path.
28:37 - 29:06
And part of being an effective Sherpa to a smaller human who I want to grow up, have him grow up and be really wise with investment strategy and money management the ways that I didn't have, one thing that we just did about a month ago was he's all hyped up on wanting to do chores for money, which basically means he wants money to go buy like Fortnite skins or something.
29:06 - 29:25
But what we did, we got him something called a green light ATM card. Do you know what that is? Have you heard of that? We have it. You do? It's terrific. It's unbelievable. It has been super motivating to him. He's doing chores in ways I've never seen him do them before.
29:26 - 29:53
He loves the fact that he has something that's his, that he has to take care of, that he earns, yet he can then make decisions around. And so that has been a huge lesson, an opportunity for us to teach him about money and the financial literacy opportunity there is so cool. So we're trying to do it differently. That's because you're a fierce female and that makes total sense.
29:53 - 30:02
But that's a great place to close. Laura, we could go on for another hour, I'm sure of it. It's been awesome to have you. I've learned so much.
30:02 - 30:33
I think one of my key takeaways is really the pressure around purpose is real. This purpose-lite, learn to identify companies that are really acting in the manner that their words would imply. And your advice to pull out those CSRs. Take a look at the stats and the first five pages, I think are totally on point. And I, too, hope that the movement that we're seeing and the speed and intensity around it is for real and it's lasting to make an impact.
30:33 - 30:54
And I'm so hopeful that those companies that you didn't name that are looking to make seismic change, that's how it happens. So thank you again. Thank you. And I'll look forward to the next one. Thank you to Laura and to Beata for that insider's look at how companies are stepping up their game when it comes to social purpose. This has been On Purpose.
30:54 - 31:13
Thanks for joining us. And remember, we all have values we hold dear. Now you can ensure your investments reflect them. You can reach me directly on LinkedIn. If you enjoyed the podcast, please feel free to rate us on Apple Podcasts or your podcast platform of choice and be sure to subscribe. Thank you again.
31:13 - 31:22
Bernstein: Making money meaningful for individuals, families, and foundations for over 50 years. Visit us at Bernstein.com.
- Travis Allen
- Senior Investment Strategist, National Managing Director—Wealth and Investment Strategies Group