The 'S' word: A guide to communicating sustainability to consumers

In the final part of edie's 'guide-to' series for sustainable professionals, Matt Mace explores how to communicate sustainability to different business departments and consumers, and asks the experts whether it is time to disregard the 'S' word altogether.

There are still murmurs within sustainability departments (which develop into muffled screams in the marketing departments) that sustainability simply can’t do what sex can… sell

There are still murmurs within sustainability departments (which develop into muffled screams in the marketing departments) that sustainability simply can’t do what sex can… sell

The current green business environment reached new heights over the past 12 months, with a decoupling of emissions from economic growth providing early signs of climate progress. The private sector proved a real driving force behind the acceleration towards that historic global climate agreement, and has duly benefited from numerous industry-wide initiatives and regulatory frameworks geared towards creating low-carbon, resource-efficient businesses that can thrive in the sustainable economy of the future.

Governments have implemented embirious ISO frameworks to help businesses improve efficiencies, while international food waste standards have been launched to tackle the mountain of unused food that goes to waste in supermarkets. When it comes to product manufacturing, the European Union’s Circular Economy Package stands out as an example of more stringent protocols for sustainable and responsible development.

All in all, the environment to embed sustainability as an organisational behaviour has never been better equipped. Even millennials are grasping the sustainable business mantra, with more of them willing to examine a company’s corporate strategy before associating themselves with that company. However, there are still murmurs within some sustainability departments (which develop into muffled screams within the marketing departments) that sustainability just can’t do what sex can… sell.

Commencing communication

Speaking at the recent edie Sustainability Communications Conference in London, experts from Heineken, Forum for the Future, BASF and the Co-operative Bank revealed that a product or idea’s “sustainability credentials” would likely be met with an eye-rolling lack of interest across a company. In order to get these concepts off of the ground, the experts revealed how a tweak in communications can turn green ideas into fully-fledged corporate initiatives.

As the second part of this 'guide-to' series pointed out, behaviour change within a company can provide myriad benefits for a business, its staff and its bottm-line. But igniting change amongst a broader audience of consumers requires an even more holistic approach in order to effectively communicate a company’s sustainability ethos to stakeholders.

“It’s not enough to develop change in pockets of isolation, we need to collaborate to change the entire system, and bring it all into the same room to create a significant transition to a low-carbon future,” explains Forum for the Future’s communications and networks director Esther Maughan McLachlan.

For Maughan McLachlan, sustainability communication can act as "a massive lever for radical change” that can inspire passion into workers and suppliers, create awareness among consumers and ultimately prove the difference between getting a product or initiative off the ground.

But while companies are quick to start conversations over a new sustainable movement, there are arguments that the idea of whether or not something is 'sustainable' can often derail progress in the talks and “take the heat out of the situation”, as Maughan McLachlan puts it.

Once such company where this type of scenario used to be commonplace is the world’s largest chemical producer, BASF. The German firm supplies a plethora of products to a host of industries including transportation, paints and coatings, construction and even nutrition. For BASF to successfully model its products as a cost-effective and sustainable asset to another company, communication is vital and has to be tailored to appeal to individual sectors, which are usually asking for different criteria.

The S word

For BASF’s sustainability communications director for Europe Geoff Mackey, the conversation of sustainability revolves around sculpting the ideate of how a product can affect current megatrends, which Mackey believes are more likely to resonate across a variety of sectors. Using the current and high-profile issues surrounding plastic waste as an example, Mackey explains that BASF can create plastic bags that last for life, or ones that can bio-degrade within weeks, but that ultimately the conversation needs to outline what issues a customer will have and how BASF can provide solution.

“There’s a whole series of conversations about how to move forward,” Mackey says. “Everyone knows about the megatrends of urbanisation and growing populations and energy trends, they’ve become the business case and have been turned into market needs.”

Mackey notes that a lot of talks regarding products can often get bogged down on the definition of sustainability and that, in order for BASF to communicate its brand message “to the masses”, the ‘S’ word has been removed from all conversations.

"The argument about what sustainability is, isn’t worth having and it takes the heat out of the passion,” Mackey says. “In our workshops, I removed any conversations about what sustainability is. We jumped the step and took people’s individual understanding of the concept and asked them what they would do and made them commit to three beneficial changes, for customer, business, and themselves.”

Conversations about the concept of sustainability can also fall onto deaf ears when communicating with investors. While some companies are proud of their green credentials, investors are more interested in the risks of the venture or company that they are backing rather than that company’s social impacts. That is the view of the head of sustainability at the UK's largest commercial property company.

Land Securities has made numerous sustainable pledges, and its landmark property – London’s ‘Walkie Talkie' skyscraper – has also achieved top sustainability ratings. But, even with just one-third of the world’s largest 1,000 companies communicating with investors over climate risks in portfolios, Land Securities’ Caroline Hill remains apprehensive about preaching sustainability to investors and external stakeholders.

“Land Securities purpose to be the best property company in the UK, in the eyes of the community partners, investors and employees,” Hill says. “We have the chance to communicate with these groups and establish what they want from us.

“If you’re a sustainable company its indicative of being an innovative forward thinking company and those companies driving the agenda are seen as progressive companies. But we rarely use the ‘S’ word with investors.

“We have trouble engaging them on the issue, so we talk to them about the specifics and about what’s relevant. You need to talk about the nuts and bolts of the topic rather than just branding it all as sustainability. Although in other cases it does work, overall you need to talk about the subject matter rather than sustainable jargon.”

As part of an effort to “climate proof” its portfolio, Land Securities has announced its intention to adopt a science-based carbon target. While Hill expects this new target to appeal to other businesses and potential partners, the brand effects that this will have on everyday consumers looks set to be minimal.

Consuming the conversation

Therein lies another issue when attempting to communicate sustainability. If the “jargon” is going to get lost on investors and businesses with a readily-developed acumen to these issues, then how will the conversation work with everyday consumers, who - sub-consciously or otherwise - are usually too busy to shop for sustainability?

Also speaking at the Sustainability Communications Conference was the Co-operative Bank’s head of value and ethics Eileen Donnelly. Just weeks into her new role (having previously worked as director of sustainability and communications at PZ Cussons) Donnelly reiterated her belief that all companies should stop 'selling' sustainability and focus on creating products and brands that have green credentials embedded as a core value.

“Brand purpose is the heart of a business - it’s not just the marketing job, the purpose has to be lived, felt and revealed by the business and those who work in those business,” Donnelly says. “The Sustainable Development Goals are a great tool for where you fit in the framework for the earth’s future. You need to choose where you fit in and make it authentic otherwise you will get found out.”

For Donnelly, the consumer has been burnt by the sustainability flame far too many times to truly believe that what a company says about a product is anything more than jargon. Using the emissions fraud fiasco at Volkswagen as an example, Donnelly notes that there is a distinct lack of trust between company and consumer.

But even if a company does have the consumer's trust, Donnelly believes that the popularity of “climate porn” – where global warming is discussed in huge and terrifying terms, yet the solution given is to “change the lightbulbs” – has done little to aid the business case that companies can combat climate change.

“I think the sustainability brand agenda is poor, there’s a debate about not using the ‘S’ word and when talking to consumers I’d agree with it. I don’t think people care about it enough,” Donnelly says. “To market greenness the consumers have to care, so you need to force them into change through new infrastructure and incentives. You can communicate but without incentives they won’t do it.”

It seems that, in order to get the consumers on board and communicate a company message to them, the traditional sustainability journey needs to be dropped for more modern methods.

This was the risk that Heineken’s head of public affairs and corporate responsibility David Paterson took when launching the company’s “uncomfortable but shareable” CSR campaign, which saw musician Kevin ‘Blaxtar’ de Randamie rap the company’s latest sustainability report to its audience (video below).

Paterson notes that the internal conversations between the sustainability department and the marketing department – who were “much smarter at getting messages across” – had created benefits for Heineken as, at the very least, it “sparked a conversation” on social media and to different audiences.

Even more traditional - and oft forgotten - marketing measures can be introduced to promote sustainability. According to social charity Shift – which designs consumer products and ventures to solve societal problems – a consumer’s willingness to act in a “green manner” will be defined by the environment that they live in and how exposed they are to certain messages.

For Shift’s creative director Tori Flower, it’s the emotions that the messages and conversations can carry that are more likely to compel someone to act on an initiative or purchase a product.

Flower alluded to the infamous “Drive with Hitler” posters that were distributed around England in a bid to promote carpooling as a more extreme example of how individuals can draw emotive connotations from messages and conversations.

“Communicating information on sustainability can be powerful, but it’s just one weapon in the answer.," Flower says. You need to think how you can shift the physical, economical and digital environments around people to ignite a change.

“It’s not down to the individual to consciously think about acting green, our behaviour is defined by the environment we’re in and the economics and socials of the decision. If you think about cars, things labelled as sustainable are often thought of being less powerful, so sometimes it makes more sense to not rely on the greenness as an attraction.”

Whereas investors and potential business partners are likely to read in-between the lines and search for profit and risks, it seems that consumers are more likely to be influenced by the societal issues they are exposed to and what emotions are attached to each message. It is the task of the corporate to reach out to both in a manner that holds interest and strengthens engagement.

Matt Mace


Communications | Corporate strategy | ethics | Social Media | sustainable development


CSR & ethics
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