Communicating sustainability progress: What’s the key to stakeholder engagement?

Pictured: One of the new 'Embodied Beauty' flooring styles in an office. Image: Interface

With key dates from the Paris Agreement fast approaching, sustainability continues to top corporate agendas worldwide. One topic that has entered the spotlight is not just how businesses can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also how they should effectively communicate this work.

Communicating performance data is essential for businesses, who need to demonstrate to stakeholders that they’re walking the talk with supply chain improvements and reduction initiatives. Honesty, transparency, and accountability are key to reporting on sustainability metrics. Many at the start of their sustainability journey can find it overwhelming to balance simultaneously hitting targets with keeping people updated. However, when done well, an effective stakeholder communication strategy can engage the various stakeholder groups, improve a business’s reputation, and even drive performance.

So, what do organisations need to consider?

Setting ambitious, yet achievable goals

It’s key for organisations to set bold, ambitious sustainability targets and to then set a strategy for how these will be achieved, including a solid framework for progress and transparency. This could involve internal analysis of operations, assessing the likelihood of meeting current sustainability targets, and determining the impact of new, bolder goals that can be achieved in partnership with customers and suppliers. Taking an ambitious, yet sensible approach is key to generating support and belief in the company’s sustainability strategy – with both internal and external stakeholders.

Being realistic doesn’t mean ruling out ambition. At Interface, we knew that we could go further than our first sustainability goal, Mission Zero ®. Now with Climate Take Back™ we aim to reverse global warming and make Interface a carbon negative business by 2040.  As well as setting realistic decarbonisation targets to inspire and build trust with customers, partners, and peers, we also have specific goals to achieve by 2030 verified by the Science Based Targets initiative to provide further credibility.

Speak your stakeholders’ language

Sustainability data is often filled with science-based jargon, which can be overwhelming for those not directly involved with the business’s environmental, social, and governance (ESG) strategy. Breaking commentary down into what it means in terms of progress against goals and ensuring that it can be easily consumed and understood, is key to guaranteeing that all stakeholders remain fully focused and engaged with sustainability policies.

An organisation could be making great steps towards decarbonising its operations; however, if vital stakeholders don’t fully know or understand what is being done, there’s a risk that good progress could be stalled by a lack of support from stakeholders (such as investors). This, in turn, could result in less investment and funding for sustainability initiatives. The ways each stakeholder consumes and understands performance metrics should guide the way they are communicated to that audience.

The important thing to remember is that the communication of sustainability data and the level of complexity will differ depending on the stakeholder group. For example, we’ve seen that investors prefer clear breakdowns of data in a report format and look at the data provided in resources like CDP, ISS, and Sustainalytics, in addition to corporate sustainability reports, to guide their investment decisions. Ultimately, understanding how different stakeholders digest, consume and use sustainability data should always guide how this is channeled – and the best way to find out what works for them is to ask and have open discussions about what they need to know about your business.

Employees are also a vital group that should be fully invested and engaged in the business’s sustainability strategy. Ensure that employees understand what the company wants to achieve and deliver training on the role they play in the sustainability journey. Give them a reason to feel pride when the business hits key goals. Employee behavior is central to the performance of an organisation’s decarbonisation efforts, so there’s also an opportunity here to involve employees directly within sustainability goals – for example, by including them in company targets for reducing commuting and business travel emissions.

Suppliers are another critical stakeholder. The data they provide helps to improve the accuracy of measuring overall impact and paints a clear picture of the entire product lifecycle from initial purchase to disposal. Working in a partnership helps to drive improvement for all, including buyers, as there is a ripple effect throughout the whole supply chain.

For customers, making sustainability data digestible is key to retaining both ongoing relationships and confidence in your business. It’s increasingly important to ensure that customers can access sustainability data on individual products or services to understand how their purchase can directly contribute to their own sustainability goals. We provide product level data, such as Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) so that customers can understand the carbon footprint of their procurement or specifications.

Avoiding “greenwashing”

In addition to getting sustainability communications and transparency ‘right,’ it’s important to focus on the accuracy and traceability of data to ensure that it can be used in the face of any scrutiny. “Greenwashing” – when sustainably data is exaggerated – has been a real concern for many businesses, so much so that under-reporting, known as “greenhushing,” has become a trend in recent years. Striking the balance between being honest and proud about sustainability progress, no matter how small, can be difficult, but it’s crucial to gaining respect and trust from stakeholders.

This reiterates the importance of having goals in place that are transparent and measurable, and being willing to share what is and isn’t working. This avoids the need for companies to inflate or exaggerate their sustainability performance or ‘play down’ progress to avoid criticism. The easiest way to get comfortable with transparent reporting, and to build trust, is to ensure goals are verified by third parties (such as the Science Based Targets initiative), and to ensure that corporate reporting identifies and provides lessons learned from the successes and challenges that the business has faced in its sustainability journey.

Looking ahead

There’s no doubt that communicating sustainability data is a challenge for all organisations. Issues are particularly common when, for example, companies may have previously been known for carbon-intensive operations and are concerned about how to address their strategy for changing ways of working and having a more positive impact on the planet.

Rather than burying any less-than-ideal performance indicators, organisations should be transparent in how they communicate this to allow it to inform change going forward, and to be authentic to stakeholders. This is effectively turning previous performance and concerns into real, actionable goals for change, and is a more positive move from both an internal and external perspective. This way, an organisation can also enjoy the wider business benefits that come from being fully transparent on sustainability performance and strategy, such as the attraction and retention of talent that is fully invested in its aims.

Effective sustainability communication can initially appear as a complex and convoluted process. But, with a clear understanding of what your stakeholders are looking for, alongside a set of realistic and measurable goals and correlating actions, organisations on their sustainability journey can ensure they build trusting relationships and an authentic brand.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie