Why being seen to be green is not enough: 5 communication lessons from COP27

Why being seen to be green is not enough: 5 communication lessons from COP27

Green leaves on a tree

Being seen to be green has become a crucial part of reputation management for almost every company around the world.

Nowhere was this more evident than at the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP27, in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, where journalists, communications professionals and lobbyists convened alongside 112 heads of state and more than 46,000 delegates, prompting comparisons with a circus or battlefield.

While COP27 saw some positive developments – including the establishment of a dedicated fund for rich countries to aid poorer ones, and an official plea for multilateral development banks to do more on finance – there was also a sense of disappointment and much of the coverage had a weary tone. 

Amid the plethora of headlines and social media posts, there was a swathe of criticism that exposed the underlying frustration with both the process and the pace of progress.

Against this backdrop, there’s a risk of B2B climate content looking out of touch or tone deaf. So, we’ve pulled out five key things to bear in mind when devising your sustainability communication strategy.

Fatigue has set in 

The powerful statements issued at the start of COP27 quickly gave way to watery commitments and a lack of a pledge on fossil fuels. The takeaway for communications professionals is that fatigue has well and truly set in. Your readers and viewers are tiring of bold claims and wide-ranging headlines, and there’s a risk of oversaturation, so keeping it fresh is key. 

The need to tread carefully is underscored by the findings of a new Global Advisor Ipsos survey. It found that the vast majority of people think the responsibility to inform and educate the public about climate change lies with governments and scientists, rather than with businesses and companies

Anticipate more scrutiny 

One article in The Financial Times called COP27 a “festival of lobbying and branding”. We also saw many even blunter posts across social media. 

With the corporate world keen to promote their sustainability credentials and much marketing budget devoted to initiatives including ads and social media campaigns, scrutiny was always going to rise. Just as social media gives you an avenue to explain your efforts, it also gives campaigners and customers a channel to question and criticise. 

Several companies have found this out the hard way. The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority ruled that Unilever’s claims of Persil washing liquid being “kinder to our planet” were misleading. It has also reprimanded HSBC over a sustainability-based advertising campaign.

What’s clear is that claims around sustainability will need to stand up to ever more intense questioning. And any related marketing materials will need to be backed up by watertight answers.

Focus on concrete action 

With increased scrutiny as a backdrop, proof points and authenticity matter more than ever. 

Standard Chartered’s strategy of focusing on finance as a force for good has served the bank well, allowing it to demonstrate a commitment to supporting more sustainable deals around the world. At the same time, its executives are talking frankly and openly about the need to do more. 

Being open in this way, and focusing on the concrete action that’s being taken, allows businesses to tread the tricky line between being accused of overstating their credentials – greenwashing – and saying too little publicly about sustainability efforts, for fear of criticism – a practice that’s been labelled ‘greenhushing’.

Listen to younger voices

Men in suits and corporate faces are becoming easy targets as the weariness around sustainability and green communication builds. Swedish campaigner Greta Thunberg skipped the Sharm El-Sheikh gathering and labelled it a forum for greenwashing.

This shows how critical it is to bring all generations along with your messaging and campaigning. Younger people were represented in a dedicated area at COP27, and your corporate communications need to speak to them.

This could take the form of more social listening, including responding directly to the thoughts and needs of these generations. Or it could involve harnessing the power of younger employees to demonstrate your commitment to ESG. 

Be mindful of the shifting political backdrop

A final, sobering, message to come out of the furore around COP27 is that the political backdrop is changing and those who favour paying less attention to the climate emergency are getting more airtime. 

A search on Twitter for “climate” during COP27 resulted in #climatescam coming up alongside #climatecrisis and #climateaction. Those that politicise the climate debate and argue for a focus on alternative topics are mostly still in the minority, but they are gaining traction.

Communications professionals need to bear this politicisation of climate change in mind – not just in terms of the quality and quantity of their communications, but also in terms of the risk of alienating some readers.

Thinking about the future

The risks around climate change communications are rising up the agenda, but thoughtful and authentic communication around these vital topics will always cut through. Done well, they will also provide a channel for you to connect with your audience on one of the most important issues of our time.



Keeping it real: why authenticity is the key to effective ESG content

Sustaining the ESG conversation: smart strategies to freshen up tired topics


About the author: Emma Charlton is the Deputy Writing Team Lead at Formative Content. Connect with her on LinkedIn here.

Need help making your climate and sustainability communications stand up to scrutiny? The Formative Content team can help. Get in touch with alex.gray@formativecontent.com 

Emma Charlton - Deputy Head of Editorial
Author:Emma Charlton - Deputy Head of Editorial