On the topic of cliches and expensive ad campaigns. How can we avoid greenwashing?
The first step is to understand the different kinds of greenwashing. The first is just outright misrepresenting what you are doing, and that should be pretty easy for brands to fix. If it’s not true, don't say it! The second, and this a little more complex, is taking just one thing - whether it's one positive area of your business, or one achievement or result and blowing that up so large you are sort of implying it stands for everything you do. It's tricky because there is nothing wrong with heroing one initiative, and communications that are singular and focused are more engaging. But when it’s not representative of the whole, when it’s just something small compared to an overall negative impact - that's greenwash. It's harder to spot and quite prevalent. It's probably easier to fall into as a brand too, as if you've achieved something good, you're going to be proud and want to make some noise about it, but if it’s not representative of how the rest of the business is, you either need to explicitly acknowledge that or not put so much emphasis on it in your communications.
The importance of sustainability reporting is undisputed but surely a more accessible, less technical language is interesting for the purposes of engaging stakeholders?
Yep! Our number one principle is understanding your audience. If you are talking to all your different audiences about sustainability in the same way (which is very common now) you are probably doing a bad job of it. Be consistent about your core story, but make sure how you talk about it is relevant to the audience. Brands don't use the language from their annual report in their advertising, but somehow when it comes to sustainability, this common sense breaks down and you see the kind of language and imagery that might be appropriate in a report, in consumer facing communications.
What's your view on 'ESG' as an increasingly common term used by companies? Does it offer a more coherent option for describing what companies are doing, or is it yet more jargon?
If ESG helps the investment community understand and interact with sustainability better, great. For the layman it’s just more jargon. The language of sustainability is already a dull mix of science and corporate speak, adding in the language of finance and investment is a potential perfect storm of boring from a consumer perspective. Use it with the appropriate audiences and not otherwise.
I agree with this comment - ESG is another lens and a specific viewpoint on the sustainability space. It is more jargon and pushes sustainability communications away from a straightforward and understandable viewpoint. We should seek to address ESG related reporting specifically and tailor how data is reported so that an ESG audience can best use it, as opposed to driving the reporting narrative towards that more specific viewpoint.
We see a lot of 'Purpose' driven businesses, should their main communications focus be on the sustainability elements that support that purpose? While quietly doing the standard sustainability practices as the norm?
Purpose means a lot of different things to different people (a lot more than we can address here) but overall, yes. If there are elements of their sustainability work that align with/support their purpose, those would be the things to focus their communications on. For credibility they need to be doing all the standard stuff as suggested in the question, but if their proactive focus is on communicating the aspects of sustainability that tie into their brand purpose (and using their brand tone of voice to do so) that would be a big step towards more differentiated and engaging sustainability communications.
Are corporate communications in position to change the system, without the management aiming to change the system?
No! In a business management must be on board, so corporate communications first step has got to be persuading them. There is a strong business case for sustainability these days so it should be possible.
Great points, I have a challenge working as sustainability manager for a conservation organisation (ZSL) - any thoughts on how I can define 'sustainability' when the core purpose of our organisation is to 'create a world where wildlife thrives' (its everything we do!)
I would ask who are you defining sustainability to, and do you really need to? If your purpose is to create a world where wildlife thrives, talk about that. It’s something anyone can understand (the big picture at least, not all the details) and nearly everyone would sympathise with. Why dress it up in jargon? We found that consumers care about and can understand individual sustainability issues but find the larger concept of sustainability tricky to engage with. Some have argued that climate change is a "hyperobject"; something that is so complex, intangible and interwoven with the systems of the world, it's literally beyond our ability to understand. We're not philosophers but it makes sense to me. So why try to talk about the bigger theoretical problem when you have a very real, tangible and urgent issue that you can talk about?
How can copywriters build trust in our writing skills? Brands trust me to write consumer copy (with few editorial changes) - but on reports, I face multiple contributors, who inevitably change clear, interesting copy into safe, cliches.
This is really tough! Hopefully this report will help, but for a lot of businesses sustainability communication seems to be about reducing risks, not seizing opportunities. At the end of the day though, if it's worth talking about surely it is worth doing so in a way that actually cuts through and that people will recall afterwards and associate with your brand/business? If they want that, then they are going to have to do something different.
Are there any specific issues to think through for B2B comms?
As a general rule (and we say this as a company that does both, we're not being mean) B2B comms lag B2C comms slightly, so perhaps sustainability has taken a bit longer to take its place in B2B marketing than it has in B2C. With that said, we've seen an increasing number of briefs where B2B businesses want to market sustainability messages, not just include them in corporate communications. In that case there are specific considerations - you still need to sure your brand has its own authentic individual take on sustainability but crucially, you have to show how it meets your customers own sustainability agenda or priorities.
Should the conversation be about our need to move beyond sustainability to embrace a regenerative economy where we see the world in terms of its wholeness and how we give back? And not as an amalgamation of resources to divide up sustainably in order to keep the economy turning over?
For experts we think the regenerative economy is a useful and interesting way of talking and thinking about the issues we have bundled together under sustainability. We don't think it's fair to lumber the general public with yet another technical term though! People are smart, but most of them have dozens of things to deal with in any given week before they get to understanding and thinking about sustainability. Regenerative economy combines two words which I think most people would find a bit of a turn off alone, so they should probably be avoided together if we want people to engage, think and act along with everything else they have going on in their lives.
Should creatives, authors and storytellers be hired by these organisations to build these authentic stories?
Yes, potentially. One of the issues with sustainability is a lack of different perspectives. Most people working in sustainability have pretty similar backgrounds leading to pretty similar ways of talking about it, to very diverse audiences. One of our principles is that more voices should be invited in to help shape communications.
If you missed our 'Words that work: effective language in sustainability' webinar, watch a recording of it here.