Focus on impact

Illustration for the focus on impact article which has the wording prepare for impact over the top
For years, sustainability communications has warped the lens to foreground incremental change or token initiatives.
Now it must reflect - and drive - true impact. 
Incremental progress

Sustainability comms has long been plagued by vague, indefinite claims. Progress has been pinned to arbitrary targets – like past performance – not a truly sustainable level of impact.


An example. If before you used 7,200 litres of water to manufacture a pair of jeans, and now you use just 2,000 litres, that’s still a long way from a safe operating boundary. And it’s this boundary that’s actually sustainable.


There’s a new set of indicators to track this kind of measure – the UN Sustainability Development Performance Indicators (SDPIs). These are calibrated by ecological normative thresholds (measuring how much impact on water, emissions, chemicals and so on defines a safe operating space on natural and social systems). 

These indicators, or ones like them, will gain ground. This kind of deep, objective substantiation will be the standard for everything we say about sustainability going forward.

Token initiatives

It’s a well-worn sleight of hand to focus on a small corner of the business and make a lot of noise about it. Think paper straws at a fast-food giant, or a single sneaker (among hundreds from the brand’s collection) made from ocean plastic.


These often have little to do with the overall business model and its impact. It’s the overall picture that we want to see now.

New guidelines

New regulation is explicitly targeting these kinds of arbitrary, token initiatives in comms.

  • Green Claims Code and ASA CAP guidance in the UK
  • EU Green Claims Directive
  • FTC guidance in the US


These guidelines are all about real impact – a well-substantiated picture, in proper context. Offsets are under fire. Vague language is called out. Many players, big and small, have been caught out. A PR nightmare ensues.


The emerging guidance gives legal teeth to the media and public sentiment that’s been rising for some time – and represents the direction of travel for all comms on sustainability, everywhere.


This changes the game, leading us to consider entirely different first principles when building comms campaigns.

What to do:

Start with the science

It may seem obvious, but don’t get out there unless your story is pinned to a number. This doesn’t mean you lead only with metrics – that’s a cold dish for most audiences. You’ll still need to deploy narrative power, aligned with the values of the people you’re looking to reach (see our thinking on Telling true stories and Speaking to values). But it must be founded on data – data that can be found without looking too hard. 

Foreground true impact

Define what truly sustainable impact looks like for the issue areas you’re working in, and track your progress against that threshold. It seems sensible: isn’t this what sustainability is supposed to be? But arguably this is the most daunting principle of all because very few businesses are operating within sustainable boundaries. Nevertheless, this is what’s demanded of us now. If you start here, you’re serving clarity on the issues and building belief in your plans. You’re also way ahead of most companies today. 

Own your trade-offs

Sustainable progress means hard choices. There’s an initial cost. You have to prioritise issues. To perform well in one area often comes at a cost to another. Highlight how you approach these trade-offs, and how you’ll leverage your strategy for longer term success. It will win trust with your stakeholders – and signal to investors that your transition is serious, and a long game.

Tell on yourself

If you do poorly against your material issues, be honest. Get out there with that story, in appropriate channels. This honesty nourishes your brand health. It advances the conversation. It galvanises employees. And we only move forward together if we can all see how we’re doing. Anything less will be called out, sooner or later.