What separates an American manufacturer of rugged outdoor shoes and apparel, from a German enterprise computing leader, from a Mexican food chain in their sustainability initiatives?

Timberland, SAP and Chipotle were each at the table during the Sustainable Brands 2012 Conference sharing their paths to sustainability. What surprised me was that two out of the three appeared very compliance driven in their efforts, while one was so culturally focused that they don’t even produce a sustainability report.

The company’s position: There’s no need to report on our sustainability because it has always been in the DNA of our business model. “It’s what we do,” said Chris Arnold, director of communications for, you guessed it, Chipotle.

By contrast, Timberland’s commitment to sustainability began nearly 40 years, according to its website, and SAP began “several years ago.” Chipotle wins the sustainable legacy battle here because it’s arguably easier to create a culture of sustainability from scratch when your company is launched during the advent of a greater sustainability consciousness among consumers. It begs the question that if sustainability and corporate social responsibility didn’t become so mainstream, would these companies and organizations like them have chosen to become more transparently sustainable, and how much does “being compliant” now guide their initiatives?

NUMBers vs Narrative

One way to tell if a company favors compliance over culture is how they present their numbers. Many CSR and sustainability reports are so crammed with analytics, that it takes a double major in bioscience and accounting to make sense of the report. This PDF from Timberland does a nice job a laying out the backstory of the company, but then the reader gets lost in the numbers. Does anyone really know what kind of impact using 1.90 kilowatt-hours per pair of boots has on the planet (The industry average is 3 kWh per pair, by the way)? The printed report that was handed out during the workshop was surprisingly laden with numbers in a layout that didn’t take particular advantage of Timberland’s outdoorsy personality. It felt like compliance outweighed culture.

SAP, as one would expect, presented a very sharp online report featuring a Gallery of Stories that captures the culture behind its sustainability initiatives. SAP reports the trend of companies being driven by compliance and evolving into a more culture-sensitive, and some might suggest, a more effective approach to sustainability.

“Ninety-five percent of the 250 biggest companies in the world now report their sustainability performance, up from 80 percent in 2008. More broadly, more than 3,400 companies are now reporting their sustainability performance with over 1,300 issuing reports based on the GRI, and more than 3,000 report their greenhouse gas and water performance to the CDP”. -SAP

Once Timberland and SAP were finished with their presentations, the microphone was passed to Mr. Arnold of Chipotle. The contrast couldn’t have been greater from two companies that appeared to be building cultures of sustainability on the foundation of compliance, versus Chipotle which has matter-of-factly created its whole business model on sustainability. Chiptole is so versed in responsibility that they don’t feel compelled to tell you about in a report, but would rather demonstrate it in their day-to-day operations.

The final irony in all of this to me is the decidedly non-sustainable icon that Chipotle uses to tell its story: the aluminum foil-wrapped burrito. Having a mother-in-law who just succumbed to Alzheimers, a father currently battling it, and the belief by many that cooking with aluminum contributes to the disease, it seems to me that Chipotle might want to take a page out of its own book and rewrap its cover story in something, well, more sustainable.