News and Views

Why storytelling is key to driving sustainability progress

Janna Irons
February 22, 2023
News and Views

Why storytelling is key to driving sustainability progress

More than 1,800 people attended GreenBiz 23 last week. Many sessions were standing-room only. The event was sold out. Of the dozens of people I spoke with at the event, many were in newly established sustainability roles, working on a large team that didn’t even exist at their company five years ago. All of this is beyond exciting and paints a promising picture for the future of corporate sustainability.

But despite the influx in interest, headcount, and resources, attendees shared another refrain: there is still so much more that needs to be done, and so little time in the day, that their sustainability efforts over-index on management and measurement—on setting goals and reporting on progress, on making small tweaks and incremental progress—rather than on innovating, transforming culture, shifting behavior, and implementing other substantive action needed to drive real progress.

Many companies are focused on the vital, foundational work: the what, the how, and the how far. This work—centered around setting targets, developing initiatives, policies, and programs, and reporting on progress—is absolutely core to building more responsible, regenerative companies. 

But driving substantial environmental and social transformation will require people: we need leaders to tweak (or sometimes completely change) their priorities, investors to shift from short to long-term thinking, employees to think and/or behave differently, suppliers to evolve the way they do business, and consumers to change perceptions and/or habits.

People are not compelled to change through data and facts alone. People need a “why”. People need to see how action (or inaction) will affect them or people like them. They need personal connection, that twinge of emotion—fear, sadness, joy, excitement, curiosity—to shift perspective. This is best accomplished through story. People need to see, vividly, what sustainability progress means to them, their family, and their communities. 

At thinkPARALLAX, we believe that sustainability strategy and sustainability communications must progress together, in unison. This means focusing on the substance (the what and how) and the story (the why) in parallel. Storytelling without substance is greenwashing; substance without storytelling is a missed opportunity. 

Companies that are true sustainability leaders not only have a substantive, data-backed strategy, but they also invest in communicating well because they understand how this amplifies their impact: They engage leaders to help share their story, they rally teams to innovate and help meet targets, they differentiate themselves from competitors, they build reputation, create allies, and attract top talent. They tell targeted, specific, emotionally compelling stories designed to meet people where they are and compel action.

Often, communications gets a bad rap. It’s an afterthought, a press release after the “real work” has been done, the spin on less-than-newsworthy news, marketing fluff, or worse, lipstick on a pig. But it doesn’t have to be—and it shouldn’t be. Sustainability communication strategy and storytelling, when done right, is how you bring about culture change and behavior shifts. Stories are core to connecting with people, and people are the key to progress.

Leaving GreenBiz last week, I couldn’t help but feel inspired. The collective passion—built on hundreds of individual whys, on dozens of speakers’ stories and conversations with people from all over the country—left me reinvigorated to go back to work and do more. It strikes me once again that this is the power of storytelling. 

Want to learn more about amplifying your story to drive impact? Check out our ESG Field Manual part III: From action to amplification.

Why storytelling is key to driving sustainability progress
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