In a post-truth world dominated by “alternative facts”, the need to strike an emotional connection with an audience has never been more pressing.

As environmental protection regimes and sustainability strategies succumb to heavyweight, geopolitical issues such as the movement of people and indigenous jobs, businesses are rapidly broadening their arsenals to drive engagement to an increasingly-emotive audience of consumers.

The business case for sustainability has juggled CSR with the desires of the public. New business models such as the sharing economy have grown exponentially to actively place consumers at the heart of operations that provide extra environmental benefits over the business-as-usual approach. But it is the convenience rather that the environmental aspect that is the main selling point.

Even as consumer awareness on issues regarding sustainability and climate change grows – as a recent Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) survey confirmed – the ability to inspire change and even sell a company’s sustainability agenda has to capture the attention of an audience in the way that melting ice caps and malnourished polar bears have been unable to.

Fortunately, the fruits of the fourth industrial revolution have blossomed into an array of opportunities ranging from captivating new platforms to technologies that have integrated into everyday lives. Businesses with one eye on the horizon are turning to these new methods to drive their sustainability message in a way the CSR reports and glowing PR stories can’t.

As business models evolve, the way that the private sector interacts with consumers changes as a result. edie’s Smarter Sustainability Reporting conference in March will offer insight into sharpening your narratives to engage with audiences, but technology platforms already exist for you to make a start.

To demonstrate, here are some of the latest trends and developments that are driving engagement in the world of sustainability communications.


Gamification is the concept of using a game or activity to educate and engage people to do something they might not otherwise do. The theory has been used with great success in several sectors – notably fitness, with tools like Nike Tag and Wii Fit turning would-be couch potatoes into fitness fanatics. 

Angry Birds has probably taught us a lot about the aerodynamics of morbidly obese birds, and if you find a time when that comes in handy then all the better for you. But the truth is that there is a huge market for games that can help push the sustainability and climate agenda in a meaningful way.

Some of the biggest companies are already experimenting with the concept. Microsoft recently used gamification to raise awareness of global water shortages, creating the One Drop of Life app, where players have to navigate a water droplet through a maze of twigs, leafs and toxic waste. Periodic factoid bubbles appear throughout, providing details on water issues worldwide.

Elsewhere, Dutch brewer Heineken – no stranger to experimenting with communication strategies through that rap video – has taken key messages and milestones from its US operations and funnelled them into a variety of games and levels that see you clear litter and ride boats on the company’s website. Game on.

Smartphone apps

Forward-thinking businesses should be well aware that more of their consumers are becoming “digital natives”. Millennials have already shown their willingness to promote products, from electric vehicles to flexible energy services, that are more suitably-orientated.

To truly capture this growing-yet-influential market, companies are introducing apps that allow consumers to tackle issues that impact the individual. Unilever, well-placed in the vanguard of sustainable businesses, worked with Facebook to develop the Waterworks app, which connects those living in water-stressed areas to people making charitable donations. The app allows donors to see the direct benefits of their money, theoretically inspiring greater generosity.

Food waste has emerged as one of the trends that consumers and the mass public are taking strong stances on, and Sainsbury’s has moved to provide individuals with a solution at the touch of a button, well screen actually.

The “Winnow” app operates as a smart meter to monitor and weigh food waste, and forms the next step in Sainsbury’s Waste Less, Save More programme to reduce food waste. Digital scales record the type of product, the weight of it, and the reason for it being thrown away. The data is then compiled by Winnow to track total waste value and sources over time.

Previously only available in kitchens, the app – which also monetises the waste for consumers – has been expanded after trials showed a 68% reduction in food waste and savings of £268 per year per household through the app.

Virtual Reality (VR)

If you want people to truly resonate with something, then do whatever you can to immerse them in it. Essentially, VR gives you a 360-degree view of what you are filming, and has been used to great effect to promote changing climates and melting ice caps.

Consumers may make the conscious choice to purchase items with sustainably-sourced wood fibre due to rising deforestation concerns. But for an increasingly-urban population the consequences of deforestation in places like the Amazon and Indonesia don’t leave a lasting impression because they aren’t intrinsically linked to the area.

Conservation International’s (CI) ‘Under the Canopy’ film – and accompanying ‘acre-for-acre’ pledge from cleaning firm SC Johnson – places the viewer in the heart of the Amazon, to soak in the beauty of the rainforest and showcase the devastation that deforestation can cause.

Under the Canopy is prime example of how ‘out of sight, out of mind’ can be switched to leave a lasting impression on the viewer. It even won an Oscar – well, kind of. Augmented Reality (AR) – made popular by Pokemon Go – has also been trialled as a tool to drive engagement, most notably in Virgin Media’s latest sustainability report.

Social media

Hardly a new innovation, but social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook allow companies to keep a running dialogue with consumers around the clock. Social media can be used to personify companies to create the allusion that the firm is actually part of its audience, think Paddy Power and it’s lad-like culture revolving around ‘banter’.

At risk of becoming an echo chamber, Twitter allows you to filter who you follow and this has given businesses the opportunity to push sustainability to those who are interested. Companies like Dell, stayed tuned for an exclusive engagement feature from them next week, are a prime example of segregating sustainability to the die-hards.

Dell, like countless other corporations, has a dedicated sustainability Twitter handle, aimed at promoting relevant stories and interacting with its followers. The main Twitter page can them pick and choose which aspects to push to a wider audience.

Twitter was also involved in a world first in the sustainability sphere earlier this year. In January, the University of London broadcasted its achievements through a series of tweets and an online presentation instead of compiling a dedicated CSR report. The tweets were published by the University’s sustainability team via the @LondonEnviro twitter account, using the hashtag #UoLCarbonCut.

Celebrity endorsements

A rule of thumb for the human population is that if a celebrity does something, the masses follow suit. If a Kardashian used a new snapchat filter, so does everyone else. If Leonardo DiCaprio rocks the ‘dad-bod’, everyone puts down the dumbbells.

Therefore, if Arnold Schwarzenegger drives around in a brutish, EV G-Wagon, then a lot of people are going to want to try it out. Celebrities have unbelievable amounts of influence over the public and can change actions in less than 140 characters.

The likes of DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo and director James Cameron all actively care about the environment and impart this passion onto their fans. Activists and companies are appealing to these interests to help promote the agenda. Whether it is Emma Watson hitting the red carpet in a dress made from plastic bottles, of Game of Thrones actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau teaming with Google to raise climate awareness, celebrities are more willing to take up the mantle of climate activists.

Even a company with the prestige and influence of Sky still turns to celebrities to help drive home the message. The news outlet’s recent Plastic Tide campaign and documentary features vignettes from Sir Richard Branson, Ben Fogle, astronaut Tim Peake and Sir Ben Ainslie to send passionate pleas.

TV Advertising

The half-time show at the Super Bowl highlights the crazy sums of money that gets thrown around for advertising, and sustainability has only started to be considered a selling point for products and services.

An ever-increasing number TV adverts are appearing that carry subtle messages about promoting more sustainable living standards and products. Kenco’s coffee vs gangs advert highlights the transformative role of sustainable farming practices, while Unilever’s Project Sunlight adverts aims to encourage millions to adopt more sustainable lifestyles.  

Even smart meter advertising is attempting to highlight the benefits of switching to more advanced energy models. Smart Energy GB, tasked with the advertisement of the roll-out, has released a variety of adverts in the last few months, humorously explaining how we only estimate our energy readings.

In fact, smart metering advertisement is receiving airtime on actual shows. The BBC, which recently made carbon reporting mandatory for its shows, has weaved the roll-out into a story line with EastEnders’ favourite Ian Beale.

edie’s engagement month

The month of February sees edie shift the editorial spotlight to engagement, with a series of exclusive interviews, features and podcasts running throughout the month to drill down on the best way to bring the people you want on the journey with you.

From consumers to clients, investors to employees, ensuring your key stakeholders are on board and engaged can mean the difference between success and failure. edie’s engagement month will explore some of the most effective methods being used to drive positive behaviour change.

Read all of edie’s engagement content here.

Matt Mace

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