The complexity of communicating sustainability

Last week, the corporate team at Golin attended the Economist Sustainability Summit. This two day event brought together leading thinkers, policymakers and business leaders to address the question:

“What does the Paris Agreement and the push for greater environmental sustainability mean for business?”

What was common throughout the  Summit was the collective belief  that business must lead the sustainability agenda,  stop relying on government and NGOs to drive policy and acknowledge the enormity of the issue and the speedneeded to drive change. There was also unified agreement on the role the younger generation will play in all matters related to sustainability.

The underlying point: Businesses need to take sustainability seriously if they want to sell to the next generation of consumers, even if only from the self-interest of the corporate bottom line.

John Podesta from the Center for American Progress emphasised this point in the wake of the seismic changes looming in the US. He urged US companies to ignore President’s Trumps strategy towards the environment and remain competitive and innovative in terms of sustainability.

Of all the speakers that talked about businesses taking a lead, it was Mark Wilson, CEO of Aviva, the only company in the FTSE 100 to sign up to the 30% Club, who offered the most straightforward proposal to deliver change. He said that Boards simply aren’t talking about sustainability and are too focused on the short term and the need to maximise profits.

In order to bring about change, Mark says, we need to introduce something Boards won’t be able to ignore. The element of competition. Make sustainability competitive, establish league tables based on the Sustainable Development Goals and Boards will have to take notice.

COMMUNICATING SUSTAINABILITY

On day two of the Summit, communication became a common thread. A question arose about how successfully sustainability is being communicated. And is this communication trusted and believed?

Justin Adams, Global Managing Director, Lands, The Nature Conservancy, admitted that so far NGOs have not done a good job in engaging consumer’s to think differently about the environment. He urged NGOs to create a new narrative around initiatives and encouraged businesses to integrate internal and external marketing into their sustainability plans.

The jury was out on how exactly consumer engagement is achieved, however Carla Cammilla Hjort, Creator of Space 10 (which brings together specialists to co-create change), highlighted the cynicism consumers currently have of large CSR programmes. She pointed to the power of collective action in sharing individual sustainability stories through social media.

Consumer cynicism was also picked up by Mark Wilson, he pointed to the need for companies to demonstrate ‘iconic actions’ both internally and externally.

The complexity of communicating sustainability is something companies cannot afford to ignore. It is critical that a consistent, transparent and straightforward narrative is established to communicate a companys’ position to investors, employees, media, policymakers and of course, their customers.

This is easier said than done – the hard part is finding a way to talk about a company’s sustainability work in a way that won’t leave its audiences cold.