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Engaging your people with the language of sustainability

Photo of Jacob Guberg

Jacob Guberg 10 February 2021


If you were looking for examples of how a critical message can be undermined by the people trying to communicate it, these last twelve months would provide rich pickings. Whatever your experience of the lockdowns, the tiers, and the ‘substantial’ scotch eggs, COVID-19 has provided a monumental lesson in the importance of authenticity and accountability in how we communicate. Beyond the frame of this current crisis communication is something that organisations often struggle with when talking about sustainability. From hazy ‘aspirational’ aims to bland, hollow language, our new report Words that work: Effective language in sustainability communications outlines where organisations go wrong in the language of sustainability and how you can get it right. Here we’ll be starting inside out at what this means for your employee experience.


Give people something to work towards


More and more, we see current employees (and potential talent) look to businesses to show accountability and leadership. In fact, 86% of people expect business leaders to speak up on the major challenges facing the world. Time and time again though, organisations fail to do this authentically, relying instead on tired clichés and ‘Stock Sustainability’. Our report found that 94% of brands used the phrase “We are committed” to speak about their efforts, often without actually making a concrete commitment to anything. Language like this is dull, indistinct and unlikely to convince your people of your intent. Instead, try being specific. Outline exactly what your goals are, and (crucially) why these are important to your organisation. Clearly stating your commitments gives your people something tangible to believe in, and something measurable to work towards.


Embed collective responsibility for positive action


While it is essential for your organisation to specify clear aims, this is just the beginning. Over 80% of people expect brands to ‘walk-the-talk’ and live up their principles to make the world a better place. The longer-term impact of movements like Black Lives Matter – and the subsequent scramble of brands making statements – is that the public now expects significant changes to the way businesses operate. Despite this, we still see examples of organisations treating sustainability as something entirely divorced from the day-to-day reality of their business, often siloed into one specific team’s responsibility. In an interview with RY for the Words that Work report, ecolinguistics professor Arran Stibbe discussed how the environment section of a newspaper might celebrate decreasing sales of diesel cars, while the business section in the same newspaper would lament it as bad for economic growth. This inconsistency of focus reduces a business-critical issue to a box-ticking exercise. If this is the message organisations are unconsciously broadcasting to their people, it should come as no surprise that they are struggling to engage them in sustainability initiatives. As a positive step, organisations can cease to bundle all their initiatives under the banner of sustainability - which is abstract to many - and instead focus on making issues directly relevant to the business. Reducing and eliminating the use of child labour isn’t just a sustainability issue, it’s a supply chain one. Decentralising and embedding the collective responsibility for the positive and negative impacts of your business demonstrates an authentic commitment to action and helps your people to see themselves as active changemakers within the journey.


Be honest about progress


It is the changemakers – your frontline employees – who will drive your sustainability projects forward. They have the proximity to operations to see where change is possible and the experience to create it. This potential can be harnessed through employee voice programs and celebrated through recognition schemes – but crucially – it must be respected in how you communicate. Anything less than full transparency will be instantly sniffed out as at best inauthentic or at worst – greenwashing. With trust in business becoming a hotly contested battleground in recent times, our report names honesty as one of the top ten principles of sustainability communications. That doesn’t make it easy. It can feel counterintuitive – vulnerable even – to be as open with people about your setbacks as you are about your successes, but bravery here turns trust into a renewable resource – rather than a dwindling one. Opening a conversation about where more work is needed demonstrates humility and creates a meaningful opportunity to engage with your people on how you can improve.


Put your people first


If sustainability communication is to develop into maturity, we’ll need to see a focus on what audiences need to hear, rather than on what organisations feel they are supposed to say. By getting your language right for your internal audience first, you are building belief in the heart of your business – and it is belief that will drive you forward.


Get started by downloading Words that work: Effective language in sustainability communications.