01/16/2014 11:56 am ET Updated Mar 18, 2014

Your Competitors Don't Matter

When it comes to corporate responsibility, you are competing with everyone.

Comparing against "the best" outside of traditional competitors is nothing new. Companies often look beyond their own industries for best practices -- such as the customer service approach of a Starbucks or Southwest Airlines could be applied to any industry that is consumer facing. Any company looking at efficiency in transportation would do well to understand the driving practices and policies of a UPS or Federal Express. And anyone who thinks that their website is designed to facilitate sales had best look at the most successful sites like Amazon and make sure that they have a "buy now" or "click here" to connect the potential customer with the appropriate local representatives.

The same must become true for corporate responsibility.

While most people understand and accept that every industry has its own issues relating to the environment, social and even economic responsibility, the absence of comparable standards across industry sectors has also helped to prevent better adoption of sustainability -- and also kept it from being an effective value-driver for several stakeholder groups, including consumers.

Consumers increasingly say that they want to purchase sustainable products and services. But no labeling system exists today to clarify and help them make the comparison. We know that people can be encouraged to look for certain attributes (union labels, domestically produced, nutritional information, organic) when making purchasing decisions. It must be meaningful as well as clearly understandable to consumers.

For example, consumers are offered simple, basic and understandable ways to compare things like mileage and crash-test results. Even the inexact nature of those measures -- the fine print that lets us know that economy, small, mid-size, large cars, trucks, and SUVs all have different standards -- allows consumers to make an informed choice.

A company that seeks the most highly motivated and skilled employees would do well to realize that (depending on the role) for the majority of job seekers, the competition is all companies for which they would be qualified. This includes salaries and benefits, of course, but increasingly other factors -- flexible work arrangements and telecommuting -- are factors that companies will have to explore if they wish to be a preferred employer. And that means continuing to challenge and motivate employees, as "job-hopping" to get ahead means that employees are looking at companies as stepping stones rather than careers.

Similarly, communities are not necessarily choosing between industry competitors; they may be deciding which industry they want in the community (if any). So when communities compare positive impacts such as job creation, tax revenues, community investment and "green" spaces against "downsides" like emissions (pollution), traffic congestion and noise, etc. being the best among your peers simply is not good enough to make you the desired neighbor.

While it is true -- and important that regulators and legislators recognize -- that the environmental, social and economic impacts of some products or industries is vastly different than others, the overall concept of being a "responsible" company is a standard that is applied across sectors. Ethics, for example, are not industry specific. Compliance with regulations is seen as a value, regardless of what the regulations may be.

Even suppliers have a choice to whom they'll sell -- if your credit or payment terms are less favorable, you may find that they can and will go elsewhere (assuming they can sell their entire inventory). Unless your products are industry-specific, companies (like consumers) may have to "compete" for the highest-quality, in-demand supplies.

Sustainability professionals must sit down and meet with marketing professionals to understand the true value drivers and develop honest and transparent measurement messages that are clear, meaningful and address the value drivers of consumers, employees, communities, suppliers, regulators and legislators.

Otherwise, we're just talking to -- and comparing with -- ourselves.