At the end of the year, CSR manager Jane looks back with pride on what she has achieved. Ten months ago, she convinced her management that, if they truly want to embrace purpose and contribute to society, they must put sustainability at the heart of everything they do.
The months that followed were a whirlwind of consultations, development, and revisions. But the results are impressive: the company now has a fully-fledged sustainability strategy, including a roadmap with concrete goals to achieve by 2030.
And yet…Jane has noticed resistance among employees when her management presented the strategy. Perhaps they didn’t fully understand what it all means? A new customer survey also showed that clients doubt the company’s efforts to minimise its carbon footprint. Didn’t they receive the company’s sustainability report with a detailed explanation?
Why a company should communicate about sustainability
Jane’s anecdote makes it clear: While it is vital for companies to integrate sustainability in their business strategies and operations, it is also crucial to inform – even involve – their stakeholders.
There are many benefits to communicating about sustainability:
- Sustainability goals give meaning to employees’ jobs. This leads to increased engagement and higher retention rates, with 4 in 10 saying they would look to change jobs if their company doesn’t implement sustainable practises. (HP Workforce Sustainability Survey).
- It serves to differentiate a company. Although, ultimately, sustainability should become common practice in all layers of society, it can today still create a competitive advantage that helps business performance (HBR).
- When a company or brand embraces purpose, they build reputation and grow loyalty over time (Nielsen).
- Investors pay more and more attention to sustainability, as “they begin to look beyond short-term investment horizons to the creation of longer term shareholder value.” (KPMG).
- It progresses sustainable development, for example by raising awareness and support for a sustainability issue or by motivating people to change behaviours (GTZ).
What is sustainability communication?
Sustainability communication is the act of consciously integrating sustainability in a communication strategy by telling stakeholders about a company’s sustainability goals and efforts.
On the one hand, companies can use one-way messaging to inform their stakeholders about sustainability. Think of a sustainability report published on a company’s website and pushed to its target audience via social media.
On the other hand, companies can involve their stakeholders more actively by exchanging information on sustainability issues and discussing specific topics and priorities. The goal here is to create a common understanding of sustainability challenges and build trust.
Communication can be a transformative act that powers improvement and innovation through participation.
Communication can also have the objective to progress sustainable development, to communicate for sustainability. By educating employees, suppliers, and other stakeholders, companies can help encourage sustainable behaviour. The same can happen by means of engaging dialogues.
For example, by using a product’s packaging to explain to consumers how to recycle it, or by organising employee round tables to find ways to optimise their work-life balance.
The five foundations of sustainability communications
No matter the type of communication a company chooses – and it’s very possible that the approach differs over time or according to objective – it must respect some important nuances if it wants to pass the scrutiny of watchdogs and prevent any potential backlash by customers.
At Sustenuto, we identified five foundations for organisations to start building sustainability communications:
- Clear ambitions
- Substantiated claims
- Compelling messages
- Transparent communication
- Accessible information
When companies truly want to take up responsibility and embrace purpose, they must be clear about their ambitions. It is important that they clarify what sustainability means for their organisation, and which goals they have set towards the future.
Closely linked to this is the fact that these goals should be relevant, and that organisations talk about the sustainability efforts where they can actually make an impact.
For example, a social media posts about the elimination of plastic cups can certainly form part of a manufacturer’s content calendar. But not if it would serve as a smoke screen to hide the lack of initiative to create a safe working environment.
Sustainability communication starts with a declaration of intent. Then, it is a matter of regularly communicating about the status of the sustainability activities and the progress being made.
If organisations want to avoid being accused of greenwashing, it is important to substantiate any claim they make. They can do so by demonstrating the true impact of their business activities on society and the environment.
For example, a company has set the ambition to render its production facility carbon neutral in scope 1, 2 and 3 by 2030. Every year, it gives an update about the progress being made in a dedicated sustainability report that closely follows the Global Reporting Initiative Standards.
Organisations can leverage their sustainability goals by translating them into comprehensible messages that captivate all audiences. It is a matter of adapting the message to different stakeholder groups to ensure that each person understands what the company aims to achieve, how it will get there and what that means for them.
For example, an international skincare company presents its sustainability strategy to its shareholders as part of the annual reporting. Employees get a more in-depth view into the actions per department via workshops and a dedicated intranet page. And customers get a more high-level introduction to the strategy by means of a video on social media.
Discover how Fevia presented the sustainability roadmap for the Belgian food industry to external audiences.
Sustainable development is never over, so an organisation’s communication shouldn’t solely focus on accomplishments. Instead, transparently showing progress, even if there is still a long way to go or some areas need improvement, will increase credibility and acceptance by the public.
A concrete example is the 2021 sustainability report of supermarket chain Lidl. The report gives a transparent update of its fifty sustainability goals in Belgium and Luxembourg, indicating per goal whether the company is on track.
Organisations can further boost credibility and drive involvement by transforming their sustainability story in attractive formats that are easily accessible by their target groups. Here, a multi-channel approach, storytelling and experiences are key.
Let’s take the skincare company as an example again. It used its sustainability report as the basis for further content development, transforming it into multiple formats for different channels and audiences. Think of an interactive workshop for employees, a video on social media for consumers, an infographic in a press release to the media, or a booklet for partners.
For the benefit of future generations
Sustainability communication is the commitment of a company to speak truthfully and authentically about its sustainability strategy, goals, and efforts. It helps companies build their reputation, create a competitive advantage, and engage stakeholders. Moreover, by actively talking to or involving stakeholders, companies can further encourage sustainable development.
Ultimately, through sustainability communications, a company makes itself accountable for the impact of its activities on society, the planet, and future generations.
Sustenuto merges profound sustainability coaching expertise with thorough experience in communications. Our five foundations serve as a starting point for companies to develop sustainability messages. We further leverage this by making sustainability an integral part of their communication strategy.
Find out how we can transform your sustainability strategy into a communication plan that will convince and activate your stakeholders.
 J. Newig et al., Communication Regarding Sustainability: Conceptual Perspectives and Exploration of Societal Subsystems, 2013