News and Views

Five insights for sustainability communicators

Janna Irons
May 30, 2023
News and Views

Five insights for sustainability communicators

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending Sustainable Brands’ Brand-Led Culture Change conference in Minneapolis. The inaugural in-person spin-off of Sustainable Brands’ flagship event focused specifically on sustainability communications and culture change. Created on the premise that effective sustainability progress requires commitments, action, and culture change, the event brought together marketing, comms, product, and sustainability leaders to drive conversation around topics like employee engagement, consumer behavior change, innovation, PR, partnerships, and more.

What continues to delight me about the sustainability community is the sense of collaboration. Many of us are technically competitors, but in our role as advocates for sustainability, we are all working toward the same aim. These shared aspirations not only create a warm, friendly atmosphere, they also result in a willingness to share real challenges and insights that others can learn from.

This was one of the main themes of the event: the necessity for sustainability teams and comms teams to better collaborate to ensure we’re bringing everyone along, getting buy-in, building momentum, encouraging engagement, and driving progress toward our company targets and a more regenerative society.

The truth is that despite significant progress over the last decade, the sustainability goals many corporations have set are not on track to be realized. Collaboration (and real investment) is essential to getting there. We’ve gotten as far as we can within our silos. Now, more than ever, we need to work together—across departments, across industries, within industries, and across sectors.

After three days of panels, plenaries, and conversation, here are a few other takeaways:

1. Gen Z wants more from brands, and most Americans support ESG. Despite recent headlines, people want corporations to make a positive impact on people and the planet. There was lots of new research shared across the event. A recent study by BBMG & Globescan found that 78% of Gen Z say they have personally been greatly or moderately affected by climate change (and 44% say they don’t want to have children because of climate change!). They are also multiple times more likely to choose a product based on its sustainability than Boomers. Another study by Allison and Partners & Headstand found that 50% of people would stop buying from a company if they stopped doing their ESG work, and 86% of people want companies to be communicating what they are doing around key ESG issues, and 66% of people feel better about companies that are addressing social and environmental issues. All this is to say that sustainability still matters, and it will only continue to matter more.

2. It’s noisy out there. And it’s only going to get noisier. Especially with the advent of AI and ChatGPT, creating content is now easier than ever. But it’s now harder than ever to get people to listen. As one plenary speaker put it: “Communications has become cheap. Listening is expensive.” Speakers shared examples of localized campaigns, video series, influencer activations, product-label storytelling, unique NGO collaborations, and grassroot community building as ways to cut through.

 3. We’re not yet fully engaging our workforce around sustainability. Many companies are doing an excellent job of creating a high-level strategy, getting leadership on board, communicating about it on their corporate website, and integrating that into onboarding for new hires. But most companies miss the middle, the large swath of middle management and boots-on-the-ground employees who are not being effectively engaged around sustainability. Joselyn  Fynboh from General Mills shared their strategy of deploying 7 integration teams across the organization tasked with integrating sustainability into their function, translating the corporate strategy into action within their area of the business, and bringing sustainability to life for their teams. In a panel I led around driving recycling behavior change, Meredith Lindvall, Director of Waste and Recycling at Cox Enterprises, shared a successful engagement program she launched that includes a company-wide facility recycling report card that recognizes sustainability leadership and engages teams in friendly competition. It's ideas like these that will start to move the needle internally.

4. We need to stop talking about “the future,” “tomorrow,” “the next generation.” Climate change, biodiversity loss, air and water pollution, human rights issues, and more are affecting us now. We need to talk about what we are doing today to drive progress now, and less about our goals and aspirations.  We need more conversation about what we are doing, how it’s creating change today, and how it’s affecting real people and communities. We need to transparently acknowledge our challenges—yes, this work is tough—and how we’re learning from mistakes and trying harder.

5. Build it and they will come. One of the speakers referenced the Henry Ford quote, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” While it’s certainly important to understand our stakeholders’ expectations and desires, real progress will likely require innovation. Most people can only ask for what they know and see, but to meet the needs of our changing world we’ll likely need to reimagine what’s possible. This could mean unique programs or partnerships, a reinvention of business models, or entirely new communication channels or tactics. It could also mean reframing of the problem, audience, or solutions entirely. Several speakers spoke to this: one proposed the idea of thinking about your audience as “citizens” rather than “consumers” ,another encouraged us to think about “creating the ideal future state” instead of “solving a problem;” and a third compelled us to think about being “owners” of products instead of “users.” 

Like any great conference, I left feeling inspired. If any of these takeaways sparked questions or ideas, feel free to reach out. I’d love to hear from you

Five insights for sustainability communicators
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