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ESGDecember 15, 2023

How to improve corporate sustainability communications

Trust is very important today. And perhaps one of the biggest barriers to advancing climate change policies.

According to the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer, 60% of citizens globally don’t trust climate communications.

“Consumers, investors, activists, journalists and others are skeptical, even hostile,” according to the GreenBiz 23 Comms Summit Report. “Messages fall flat, real successes are disbelieved and communicators mute themselves — an all-too-common practice known as greenhushing.”

In an attempt to rectify this, GreenBiz brought together nearly 200 communications, legal and sustainability professionals from large companies as well as outside experts on sustainability and ESG communications.

Their goal was to devise a way of communicating company climate results to the public.

Communicating effective messages

One panel focused on promoting effective, accurate, and compelling communications that included company Legal, Communications, and Corporate Sustainability departments. They derived three main suggestions.

First, bring major company players together early and often.

They gave this example: Imagine reaching the end of a cross-functional, collaborative working group with external stakeholder input. After reviewing, the legal department decides that it wants to frame the message differently. A sustainability expert says the language is imprecise. Communications is now at a loss as to how to tell a compelling story.

This might have been averted by bringing all the essential internal groups together on day one of the project.

Second, integrate the expertise from each department and speak their language.

This necessitates being transparent. Also truly understanding the subject matter and pain points of other stakeholders. The GreenBiz panel suggests that, long before soliciting signoff from a subject matter expert, double-check the accuracy of a communication. Have resources and questions ready on an ongoing basis; don’t just “spring a problem” on someone during a meeting.

Finally, have playbooks, guides, and protocols ready.

To disseminate an effective message, the panelists suggest having all of the analysis and facts in order and be ready to stand behind them if there is a challenge. Companies need to prepare messaging playbooks, guides, and protocols for teammates to help them understand the whole picture involved in a messaging challenge.

Youth and influencers

An out-of-box way to improve sustainability communications and credibility is to engage young people and influencers in a two-way relationship, listening to their concerns and potential solutions. Producing and gearing shorter, more concise content to their needs.

Influencers are a wonderful way to reach younger audiences as members of Gen Z easily spend half their time online and are seriously concerned with the climate crisis.

According to GreenBiz, a major social media platform recently organized a training to help digital content creators, representing one billion combined daily followers, find their climate voices. Influencers are seeking partnerships with businesses and brands. But many are worried about greenwashing. Influencers have to be careful of what they post and who they post about so that they can maintain their credibility.

Their audience, with restricted attention to content, enjoy bite-size, engaging messages. Therefore, influencers often talk about work in progress, rather than overarching goals. Companies should take this into consideration when putting out press releases and communications.

Watch out for greenwashing

One of the challenges to trust has been the practice of making exaggerated or unverifiable claims about environmental benefits —greenwashing.

Regulatory challenges related to greenwashing have risen over the past several years. These include actions by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and U.S. state attorneys general, private litigation, and challenges by the Better Business Bureau.

There is no simple definition for the practice.

The FTC considers greenwashing through the eyes of the “reasonable consumer,” which leaves lots of room for interpretation.

According to GreenBiz, accusations of greenwashing tend to focus on one of two things: either the types of words or even the colors used to describe a product or brand, such as lawsuits charging that Keurig falsely called its coffee pods as recyclable — or the tactics used to achieve a goal, such as Bloomberg calling out companies for using renewable energy credits (RECs) toward their net zero targets.

Watchdog groups may target an industry leader, for example, that fumbles in efforts to decarbonize its supply chain, yet they leave alone competitors who haven’t even announced a similar initiative.

Because of the lack of clarity, greenwashing has largely been a result of misstatements by companies trying to address today’s need for sustainability communications without proper direction. Actual cases of misleading information are few and far between.

The Summit Report suggested several solutions:

First, one needs to know their audience. Ask, who are you targeting — consumer, investors, activists, or business partners? Each needs different information presented in a manner meaningful to them. Here, due diligence is required.

Second, provide substance and science. GreenBiz says, “Make sure to have the substance, the data and the context that matters to back up sustainability claims. Be able to explain them in basic terms, but also have the deeper details on hand. Focus on programs that are credible and grounded in science, and then remain accountable for transparency and reporting against progress. Set targeted benchmarks, then follow up.”

Finally, pressure-test externally. Before sharing any sustainability communication, one should explore third-party perspectives. The report suggests that a company should secure science-based validation to pressure-test for an array of audiences.

“Partner with communications, marketing, and engagement channels to ensure that storytelling and technical data sharing is meaningful for them. If you determine that a ‘reasonable consumer’ may have a number of different interpretations about a claim, only some of which are substantiated, then qualify or amend that claim,” the report says.

Greenhushing can be just as bad, if not worse. A company shouldn’t be afraid to speak out about credible advances and sustainability efforts. Just don’t exaggerate. Hire a sustainability communicator to help, if in doubt.

A few other pointers when trying to communicate sustainability goals and practices:

Keep in mind that the crisis is affecting people today. The timeframe one’s story needs to be told is the present, not some distant time period for future generations.

Be honest about not being able to deliver a perfect goal now, and share the tale of the journey toward reaching a target.

Expand the narrative beyond your organization. Broaden the messaging to bring in other groups and industries.

Offer more positives than negatives. Be frank about the challenge. But also present the action or opportunity that will help improve the situation.

Together, companies can regain trust and motivate stakeholders, investors, and customers to not only believe sustainability communications, but also act upon them.

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