How best to show your company’s commitment to sustainability

You’ve read about it in the papers, your competitors are tweeting it, and your CEO has put it on the agenda for your next meeting.

Sound familiar? If one word captures the spirit of the age as we look forward to 2020, sustainability must be among the contenders.

It’s become such a global imperative that it’s hard for any corporate to ignore.

Google searches for “environmental, social and corporate governance” doubled in the past year, “climate strike” is the Collins Dictionary 2019 word of the year, and sustainability will be one of the central themes of the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos this January.

Enabled by better access to and availability of data, more and more people are waking up to the challenges we face, be it climate change, environmental concerns or how workers are treated. And they want to know what the companies they interact with are doing as well. 

Follow the money

There’s also an investment angle, with individuals and asset managers directing cash toward companies whose activities reflect this zeitgeist. Sustainability factors are now regularly incorporated into company assessments. And portfolios that prioritise environmental, social and corporate governance are outperforming standard stock-market indexes.

That means companies are racing to prove their sustainable credentials. Flick through any Sunday supplement or browse YouTube, and you’ll find adverts and videos citing prowess in areas like renewable energy, plastic recycling and use of biofuels.

So, when there’s more than just reputation at stake, and all corporate actions are subject to scrutiny, how can companies best communicate what they’re doing? 

And, more importantly, what should you tell your CEO?

1. Have an authentic narrative

“Authenticity comes from deep in the soul of an organization. It can’t be faked, it can’t be dreamt up by marketers and it can’t be spun into a story.” 

— Professor Cees Van Riel and researcher Marijke Baumann, Reputation Institute

Don’t be tempted to overblow or exaggerate what you’re doing. Be honest, open and transparent about the current state of play and how you plan to make changes. Getting stakeholders to identify with and buy into your message is critical, as is being open about what’s going on right now. It lays down firm foundations for the future. 

2. Set real targets

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”  

– Michael Bloomberg, American businessman and politician

If sustainability is one of the trends of our time, big data has got to be another. The plethora of information available to us and the methods by which it is gathered are advancing every day, alongside ways to analyse and understand its patterns and trends. 

All this information can be harnessed to drive sustainability agendas, underscoring their credibility by showing meaningful changes and commitments. Big data can help you understand your operations more fully and optimise how you use resources. US retailer Williams-Sonoma and chocolate maker Hershey’s, are just two of the companies already using metrics to map out a more environmentally friendly future.  

3. Work collaboratively

“Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” 

–Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company

The issues at stake can seem broad and wide-ranging and it can be difficult to anchor your place in the debate. That’s where broader targets, goals and cross-industry initiatives come in – what’s your industry body doing? Would a competitor like to join forces for the greater good? 

Teaming up can also build integrity. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation and UN Environment Programme lend their credibility to major companies including Carrefour, Colgate Palmolive, MARS, The Coca-Cola Company and Unilever, in exchange for public commitments about the future. 

This has led to the companies committing to increasing recycled content in their packaging to around 25% by 2025, from the current global average of 2%, underlining the power of joint action.

4. Beware the risks

“It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.”

—Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the US

Coming across as inauthentic could be worse than doing nothing at all, and accusations that you’re making misleading or exaggerated claims about your products, efforts or credentials, or so-called greenwashing, can spread across the internet like wildfire. 

As with all communications, it pays to be thoughtful about how your messaging will come across, and how those on the other side of the debate might interpret it. 

Love it or hate it, corporate sustainability is a growing trend, and one that’s not going away. It can be good for the planet and good for business, but only if it’s enacted and communicated in a clear and authentic way.

READ MORE:

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Formative Content is a corporate digital agency working with some of the world’s most widely known and well-respected multinational organisations. If you’d like help with your digital marketing campaigns, get in touch.

About the author: Emma Charlton is a Senior Writer at Formative Content, having joined from Bloomberg News, where she covered economics, central banking, currencies, markets and investing.  Connect with her on LinkedIn here.

Emma Charlton - Deputy Writing Team Lead
Author:Emma Charlton - Deputy Writing Team Lead