04/10/2012 05:53 pm ET Updated Jun 10, 2012

Contributing to the Greater Good by Being Selfish

"Doing well by doing good." The phrase has been overused, but fortunately it is no longer a novel concept in business. Employees, shareholders, and customers are increasingly expecting companies to focus on their social and environmental performance hand-in-hand with their financial performance. In fact, recent studies by companies such as Edelman Financial Group and WPP indicate that when choosing between brands of equal quality and price, social purpose ranks as the number-one deciding factor for global consumers' purchases, above design, innovation, and brand loyalty considerations, and 75 percent of U.S. consumers want to buy from green brands. Failure to listen, given the means in the digital age to stand in judgment of brands, will result in business being withdrawn. The reverse is also true. Consumers will reward brands for their behavior with passionate advocacy enabled by the same social media tools.

At its core, the phrase "doing well by doing good" means that growth, revenue, and profit should be the byproduct of making a positive difference for multiple stakeholders, not the ultimate goal. This approach becomes more interesting when applied to the most microcosmic "business unit" possible: the individual consumer. If we could imbue this philosophy into our culture -- at an individual level -- collectively we would catalyze a broad positive impact previously thought unattainable. Businesses that embrace this philosophy focus on the connections between creating societal and economic value and are motivated by generating benefit for multiple and diverse stakeholders -- for their employees, supply chain partners, customers, investors, and the health of their brand. Many individual consumers are similarly motivated. Our choices are heavily influenced by self-interest; we want to have enough resources to support ourselves and be able to provide for and protect our families, while at the same time wanting to leave a positive mark on our communities and even the world.

The ROI of "doing good" for businesses is pretty easy to understand: improvements to the bottom line, increased customer satisfaction, and often a more visible, measurable environmental impact due to the larger scale. The return on making sustainable lifestyle changes at the individual level, however, isn't always as clear or pronounced. Given the magnitude of our environmental issues, we cannot always "see" the impact of our behavior. To get a critical mass of consumers to change their behavior, you have to make the return relatable and valuable on a personal level.

So which are the most effective motivators of behavior change? I believe there are three key pillars:

  1. Show me the money: If certain behavior changes can influence one's personal financial position and that of one's community, it forges a personal connection and increases the chance that the behavior is maintained over time. The consumer becomes invested, if you will. The opportunity to save or even make money taps into every person's desire to better provide for themselves and their family.
  2. Get social: We now live in a world of hyper transparency and constant connectivity; people don't hesitate to head online to seek out information around sustainability efforts, share their own thoughts, and promote the positive steps they are taking to live more sustainably. This public sharing contributes to our definition of our sense of self and provides social status and recognition, which adds an additional motivational factor. Incorporating elements of competition and personal reaffirmation into our efforts to inspire a mass shift towards more sustainable choices and behaviors is an effective way to use social currency as a catalyst for positive change.
  3. Make it measurable: The global environmental issues that confront us are so large, complex, and interconnected that they seem impersonal and impossible to do anything about at the individual level. By making the actions you are requesting people to take measurable and trackable, you can show individuals the tangible impact that their actions have in the context of the collective action of others. If you can show them how their actions are contributing positively to their own community as well as the natural environment, then you can catalyze social activism and commitment.

If we're going to navigate our way toward a sustainable future, we're going to have to think and behave differently. It's not about doing good for the sake of doing good. It's really about self-interest. By engraining this into both business and consumer behavior, we can more effectively move society toward a sustainable future, and, in the process, help people understand the connection between the environment, economics, and the well-being of our communities.