Stand up to scrutiny: 5 steps to robust sustainability content

Stand up to scrutiny: 5 steps to robust sustainability content

Aside from the very obvious moral and ethical obligations, the business case for sustainability content is also increasingly persuasive. By 2025, the value of global Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) assets could exceed $53 trillion − more than a third of the total under management. There is also increasing evidence that companies that prioritise sustainability can enhance value creation and attract consumers willing to pay extra.

But while the business case has grown, so have marketing dilemmas. Some marcoms leaders rightly worry about their companies’ sustainability credentials, or a lack of full supply chain visibility. How can their sustainability content break through in an increasingly congested marketplace?

At the same time, regulators are increasing scrutiny amid concerns about corporate ‘greenwashing. The most recent Edelman Trust Barometer cautions companies against post-pandemic overpromising.  The task ahead for marcoms leaders, therefore, is to make their corporate sustainability messaging as authentic and meaningful as possible. Here’s how to make a start.

Step 1: Guard against greenwashing

“Businesses who are really in it for the long term, and who want to develop a sustainable business model, have to do more than greenwashing,” warns Patrick Reichenmiller, Global Communications Lead in Climate Risk at Swiss Re. “You’re opening up your business not just to reputational risk − you could lose customers.” 

Greenwashing − where a misleadingly positive impression is created about a company’s environmental credentials − is nothing new. But as more companies talk about their sustainability track records, accusations of bad practice also become more likely. 

How can marketers avoid this trap? 

A good starting point is to ground sustainability claims in legitimate corporate social responsibility (CSR) reporting methodologies. Measures like Global Reporting Institute (GRI) environmental reporting standards can help companies benchmark their achievements.

But how much do you need to have achieved to tell the world about it? Not every business can be like Patagonia, the American outdoor clothing company that has supported grassroots environmental groups for almost 40 years.

Gay Flashman, Founder and CEO of Formative Content, says companies should instead take a step back. “It may well be that a company hasn’t fulfilled its complete potential in terms of supporting sustainability and reaching its net-zero goals,” she says. “But it may well be that it’s starting the journey.”

BP has set out its objective of reaching net zero by 2050, or sooner, in a clear and bold way. “The best way to stave off any accusations of greenwashing is to make sure that your activity is meaningful and is tied to the long term strategy of the company,” says Flashman. “Perhaps it’s also an acknowledgement of misguided decisions in the past, and a change of position for the future.”

Step 2: Act with authenticity

“Fulfilled. It makes me fulfilled,” explains Nykeesha Griffin of her work with Microsoft’s Employee Giving Campaign.

Nykeesha is a human resources manager at Microsoft and one of many staff voices it features in its richly-sourced On the Issues blogs. By showcasing authentic employee stories, Microsoft projects its values in a way that many audiences might find more relatable than a purpose statement.

“Authenticity is probably the gel that holds a community of like-minded employees together,” says Reichenmiller. “I think this is such an important aspect of communication, and a company.” 

So how can marketers leverage this powerful force? 

“The way to surface stories is to go to your teams,” advises Flashman. “Make sure that everybody is on the same page and understands the aspiration.” 

“Then − just as in a news environment − you need to go and do interviews, find out what people are actually doing in tangible terms. Talk to the people on the ground, delivering real solutions or creating client products, actually working directly with clients.”

Step 3: Evidence everything 

Every good journalist knows the 5Ws: Who, What, When, Where and Why

Proof points are essential − if not on social posts, where space can be limited, then certainly via a hyperlink to a campaign website. Google’s fact-packed guide to its climate commitments is both digestible and detailed. 

Companies also need to use facts sparingly. Dense statistics will fail to connect with most readers. 

Reichenmiller advises marcoms leaders to play to their companies’ strengths, grounding claims in their products and services. “In the insurance industry we talk about risk all the time – it’s our core business,” he explains. “But I think it’s equally important, if not even more [important], to talk about inspiring opportunities − the new technologies and new industries we provide solutions for, like renewable energy, or electric vehicles.”

Step 4: Don’t be dull

The issues are certainly serious: the UN has warned that the world is not on track to meet the Paris Climate Agreement goals. So, too, are the risks of marketing missteps. But it would be a mistake to play it safe. “Don’t forget you’re still fighting for attention for your content,” cautions Flashman.

The question is how to stop the scroll. 

Not everyone can be like Ben & Jerry’s, which regularly makes headlines with its cause-based marketing. However, McKinsey’s sustainability content speaks confidently to B2B and broader audiences through the quality of its analysis and highly engaging visualisations.

If creative visuals can seem like an arms race, marketers should lean into their traditional strength of telling the audience information of value. The World Economic Forum’s sustainability pages brief readers on its values, and inform them about the latest developments.

Step 5: Always align 

“Data shows no correlation between official values and corporate culture,” was the dispiriting verdict of an MIT Sloan Management Review of corporate culture statements in 2020. 

A survey of c-suite marcoms and sustainability leaders has also found problems: just 25% say they work well together. Misaligned messages risk charges of hypocrisy.

The solution is a coordinated approach to dissemination − not just externally, but internally too. But sustainability cannot begin and end with a communications exercise. It must also be at the heart of decision-making, and everyone must live the message. 

“Marketers need to make sure that everyone recognises the relevance of this to the wellbeing of the company going forward,” advises Flashman. 

Properly engaged employees can be powerful allies in spreading the word. But alignment doesn’t need to end with staff. Many companies are also aligning their sustainability claims with a bigger global purpose: for example, both Swiss Re and Standard Chartered have aligned their sustainability strategies with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Joined-up thinking can have an impact beyond boardrooms.

A broader purpose

At its best, a robust sustainability content strategy can be a flywheel for positive change, not just in the organisation, but across societies.

It’s also fine to start small. 

“Not every company is involved with multi-million pound hands-on projects that are demonstrably impacting the world’s sustainability footprint,” says Flashman. “But we can all still make some impact. Whether it is through their actions or words, every organisation and the individuals within them can play a part in a wider sustainability vision.”

As COP26 approaches, marcoms teams have an opportunity. But first, they need a meaningful message.

Download our free ebook On purpose: telling sustainability stories with impact here.


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About the author: Harry Kretchmer is a Senior Writer at Formative Content specialising in sustainability matters and other pressing topics. Harry has previously spent time at the BBC and ITV before joining Formative. Connect with him on LinkedIn here.


Harry Kretchmer - Senior Writer
Author:Harry Kretchmer - Senior Writer