Why Corporate Social Responsibility Is the CMO's Best Accessory

CMO Spotlight: Mark Hanna, Richline Group

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When it comes to business, corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives look good on everyone. And they're not always superficial; companies that go above and beyond federal regulations and requirements concerning everything from the environment to social issues often find that CSR instills a great source of internal pride and, surprisingly, often boosts their bottom lines.

Mark Hanna
Mark Hanna

One CMO who can speak at length about this -- enough to carry home a Corporate Social Responsibility Award from The CMO Club -- is Mark Hanna of Berkshire Hathaway fine jewelry subsidiary Richline Group. I've had the pleasure of doing business with Hanna on a campaign whose tagline read "because function needs fashion." The same can be said of his take on CSR: Not only appealing on the surface, but functionally fantastic for all involved.

A shining example
Asking Hanna to describe CSR elicits a definition not unlike the one I offered above. "In summary, it is a socially responsible company's efforts that go beyond what may be required by regulators or environmental protection and based on the conscious contribution to promote positive social and environmental change." Or, a simpler version: "The standard answer of leaving a better world than we have now works perfectly for me," he says.

For Richline, "conscious" integration of CSR into business would be putting it lightly. Hanna rattles off a seriously impressive list of environmental and social steps forward that the company took just last year. For example, there was the installation of over 180,000 square feet of solar panels in New Mexico -- enough to power its Albuquerque facility and generate bonus energy for the state. Or initiatives to eliminate the use of conflict-region gold while simultaneously funding artisanal, mercury-free mining through legal supply chains. Or switching to more energy-efficient lighting and generators, philanthropy towards children and taking leadership roles in the Responsible Jewelry Council. Were these activities extracurricular? Yes. Were they extraordinary? You bet. However, Hanna tells me that CSR earns more for Richline than feel-good extra credit.

Investment pieces
These activities fall under a rationale that Hanna terms "return on responsibility" -- the idea that acting for the greater good is, in fact, a smart business practice in fine jewelry. "We truly believe in return on responsibility…so much so that we influenced the Berkshire Hathaway Sustainability Summit to adopt this as the 2015 meeting theme," Hanna says. Sustainability and corporate responsibility have been exceptionally meaningful to Richline's position and reputation within its industry, which is where the "return" part comes into play. In fact, it "exceeds that of pretty much anything else we could promote for our brand. It's that significant," Hanna tells me.

Setting the stone
With results to justify the extra time and effort, Hanna says that management requires little convincing when it comes to new initiatives, as everyone understands CSR is an asset to the brand. "As keepers of the firm's reputation and in a world demanding trust and authenticity, it is a necessary strategic goal," he says. And with leadership's support, Hanna can set CSR even further into the company's mold, so to speak. "I believe sustainability initiatives have to be driven from the top and integrated into the culture," says Hanna. "They must become a way of doing business, require the participation of all company resources and are not just one-off operations projects. We should be committed to showing that an investment in sustainability is an investment in our brand."

Showing off the goods
Something I find interesting about this topic is the way each CMO chooses to frame his or her company's CSR activities to the public. "To brag, or not to brag?" is the big question here. It should be of little surprise that Richline prefers, like its jewelry, a finer approach. "We are very conservative here," says Hanna. "Our strategy has been to celebrate our Richline Responsible program leadership and accomplishments only to the trade and B2B." He tells me that, at this point, he and his team have no plans for consumer programs or promotion.

A sparkling future
While not currently trumpeting their CSR efforts from on high, this isn't to say that Hanna and his team don't anticipate the needs of their market down the road. "Sticking with the responsibility theme," he says, "I believe in the future of transparency as a requirement by the upcoming generations of consumers." His challenge during the rest of 2016, he confides, will be to create more transparency in the supply chain, so much so that the Richline brand will be recognized for its openness. Perhaps this is the true beauty of CSR -- eventually, doing good will blend seamlessly into the brand itself.

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