Fifty shades of green: Telling your sustainability story

With this week being National Storytelling Week (30 January - 6 February), edie reporter Matt Mace investigates how creating a compelling and evocative sustainability story can turn a big green idea into reality.

The business landscape has perhaps undergone one of the most monumental behaviour shifts in recent history as companies from a variety of sectors begin to shift their mindset from short-term profitability to long-term sustainability.

For some, this shift is being treated with an ‘adapt or die’ attitude. But for the forward-thinkers and innovators, the green industrial revolution is a clear business opportunity – and some are already reaping the rewards of years of climate action.

These sustainability leaders are no longer seen as the ‘boy who cried wolf’, but as heroes in the sustainability movement. And the ‘wolf’ is now knocking at the door. Paris thrust climate change into the limelight and it is now up business to implement new sustainable practices.

Here’s where the role of storytelling comes in; as an essential skill in embedding sustainability initiatives in organisations and spreading the message far and wide.

Once upon a time…

Discussing the role of storytelling at edie’s own Sustainability Skills workshop last week, a panel discussion including IEMA, Forum for the Future, Olam International and Sainsbury’s all agreed that that “building your own myth” has become an important tool in resonating with board members to promote sustainability.

“There is a myriad of skills to tell your story,” said Forum for the Future’s system innovation project manager Zahra Davidson. “All of these layers are needed to take the story out into the world.

“Sustainability talks a lot about lifecycles, but the lifecycle of the sustainable story is just as interesting. You need to think about how the story that you craft will be spread out across the world and how it will be told from one person to another.”

The panel amplified the importance of understanding that different stories will appeal to different stakeholders, and that mapping all of the different listeners is an important part of promoting a company’s CSR agenda.

IEMA’s policy and engagement lead Nick Blyth said: “You need to understand that sustainability is a process that never truly ends. But without the right backing it can be something that never truly starts. If you can get others on board with this idea who isn’t a CSR leader then it builds capacity, momentum and enthusiasm around a company and creates a platform to put sustainability into a company’s DNA.”


The running narrative of the historic Paris climate conference gives a company the perfect backdrop to create a compelling story. Everyone is aware of the stakes; there is no better time to get the entirety of a company on board with ambitious sustainability programmes.

Doing so offers more than just future security and financial gain. Blyth pointed to a new IEMA report which highlights how top-level sustainability professionals are actively seeking jobs with companies who tell the same stories as they do. Companies who can sell their story to these professionals in an effective manner are therefore one step closer to creating long-lasting legacies.

While the concept of getting others on board may sound simple enough, the panel noted that the efforts some companies now go to in achieving targets – especially from within their supply chains – often go unnoticed, which can fail to create a sense of accomplishment and lead to unattainable targets being set.

As a solution, Olam International’s global public relations manager Nikki Barber has used “myth-building” to sculpt the movement of cocoa beans in Africa into a companywide sense of achievement that encourages others to retell the story.

Barber said: “We forget to explain how hard achievements can be and we forget that these achievements are in line with what we are trying to deliver. These misconceptions are dangerous because others won’t understand the difficulties that each task entails.

“But by turning these tasks into really powerful stories of achievement you create a sense of accomplishment that is transferred to other parts of the company. If you don’t tell this part of the story then the next set of targets becomes too hard to reach.”

Two sides

The panel noted that an employee’s story will likely be different from a board member’s story, but that any green initiative introduced in a company should always benefit both.

O2’s flexible working hours is a prime example of how an initiative, if presented in the right way, can create the desired effect for both aspects of the company. Workers were told they would be able to save an hour and 45 minutes that would be spent on travel and split it between work and pleasure. The extra 45 minutes of productivity appealed to the board, while the extra 45 minutes of personal time appealed to the workers.

“You want to have as much resonance across an organisation as possible so building a story that you can tell to both builds a sense of belonging,” IEMA’s Blyth added. “You can piggyback one message off of another’s so that everyone is on board with the idea.”

A positive difference

Sainsbury’s is another company that stands out for ‘humanising’ sustainability through a series of initiatives such as the UK’s Greenest Grocer. Campaigns like this allow staff to develop their own stories in order to promote sustainability to consumers.

The retailer’s head of sustainability Paul Crewe revealed that tangible interests can lead to tangible benefits for a company. This type of approach has been vital to the success of Sainsbury’s sustainable legacy.

“I’m not trying to draw up ways to brainwash companies to do the right thing,” Crewe said. “I just talk about something I am truly interested in in a way that they would be interested in. Because the interest is there, I can draw up tangible and measurable targets that enable us to make a positive difference.”

This panel discussion took place at edie’s inaugural Sustainability Skills workshop, which provided sustainability professionals with the skills they need to take the next step in their careers.

Matt Mace

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