Seven top tips to engage on sustainability during a global pandemic

edie recently hosted an afternoon of back-to-back online events exploring best-practice advice into communicating, engaging and reporting on sustainability. Against a backdrop of a global pandemic, panellists outlined their thoughts on how businesses can keep sustainability high up the corporate agenda.

The sessions can be watch on-demand

The sessions can be watch on-demand

The Government has arguably given the nation a masterclass in how not to communicate during a global pandemic, with the Prime Minister’s Sunday message and following 55-page document outlining the next – albeit slightly confusing phase – of easing the lockdown imposed because of the coronavirus.

While the coronavirus pandemic is rightly the focus for businesses, sectors and workers right now, the notion that nations can “build back better” through resilient stimulus and recovery packages that focus on low-carbon sectors and job growth has built up confidence that sustainability isn’t sliding down the corporate agenda in these tragic times.

Businesses, on the other hand, may have pivoted away from the green agenda in recent months as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdown. An edie survey revealed that more than half of businesses surveyed have postponed sustainability-related announcements. But, sustainability professionals that we have spoken to, some of whom have been furloughed, all agree that communicating an organisation’s long-term sustainability strategy is vital to keeping staff and customers focused and energised on the low-carbon transition.

During edie’s Reporting and Communications online sessions, recorded Thursday 7 May, speakers from the likes of Innocent, British American Tobacco, Capgemini, Toast Ale, Given and Kier Group all discussed what the future holds for reporting, behaviour change and communications; here edie rounds up seven key tips.

Note: the online sessions are available to watch on-demand here.

1) Strip back the jargon

As the lockdown has proved, the public is hungry for information, especially as each day is a new step towards a “new normal”. There is a chance here for sustainability professionals to outline what role low-carbon, closed-loop and community-based initiatives and ambitions can play in helping individuals, businesses and sectors transition into this new normal.

A business may not know how to acutely articulate this message, considering that people are impacted by the lockdown in different ways. While speakers noted the need to be aware of the delicate issues around Covid-19, waiting for a perfect message can derail progress altogether.

Not letting perfection be the enemy of the good is a trusted mantra in the sustainability sphere, and being transparent that all areas of the businesses are still figuring out pathways out of this pandemic will reassure the audience you’re trying to engage that the messaging is genuine.

In addition, stripping back the jargon to focus on the simplicity of wanting to make the planet a better place can also help drive engagement.

Innocent Drinks’ sustainability cheerleader Katie Leggett said: “How we tend to talk about it is internally, is what would you say to a friend at the pub, how can you convey the message and how would you tell it to your friends. You need to sound like a human being, rather than veiling things in a corporate jargon, which is very easy to fall into.”

Leggett is exploring jargon and buzzwords and whether they could actually be stalling action, and the sustainability can add their views to this research here.

2) Map out your audience and their habits

On the subject of audience, as more people become aware and concerned about the impacts of climate change, the audience size for your organisation’s communications expands as well. Whether it’s the public, internal staff, the board or investors, more people are likely looking at your business through the lens of sustainable actions, but what is most material to them may differ.

Consumers, for example, have historically been more aware of the impacts of plastics than the need to decarbonise, while investors are exploring all climate risks in their portfolio. Having some tailored comms or even bespoke report breakdowns can be key to answering all key concerns moving forward. While all will be interested, mapping out your audience and understanding how they’ll consume information is key.

“[Sustainability] is still an important matter to our audiences and as we move through this pandemic there is still the focus on the green recovery,” Toast Ale’s COO Louisa Ziane said. “But what might change is the way people will consume this information, and there will be a resurgence of the local community, which will make trust and engagement much more important.”

If nations do successfully “build back better”, then sustainable businesses will need to be able to articulate the role that they are playing in spurring a low-carbon economy. Knowing your key data and message straplines will help explain this to a variety of different stakeholders.

3) Make sustainability the language of the decision makers

All eyes a currently fixed on the short-term economic disruption and there is a chance that your long-term sustainability ambitions don’t really translate with the severity of what is happening now. As such, any sustainability professional that can translate their sustainable actions into costs savings, whether that be through reputational gains to resiliency against physical climate risks, can likely gain more traction as a result.

“Sustainability can fall of deaf ears,” Kier Group’s head of sustainability and environment Jo Gilroy said. “You need to understand your actual audience and what their reasons and drivers for sustainable business are.

“Sustainability initiatives are often not translated into the language of the decision-makers, they are communicated in the language of a sustainability professional. It doesn’t translate and decision makers can miss the point.

“We took our environmental metrics and we translated it into the language of cost, which is the driver of the decision-makers. As soon as we translated it from tonnes of carbon to costs of carbon, all of a sudden, the buy-in accelerated.”

4) ESG messaging must become clearer

We’ve mentioned investors already, but that particular community is changing in response to the pandemic. The issuance of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) bonds has increased by 272% year-on-year, as investors and insurance firms take proactive steps to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

On the asset manager front, NGO ShareAction examined 75 of the most influential firms worldwide to explore governance approaches to climate change, biodiversity and human rights. The organisation found that more than half of the asset managers examined had a “very limited approach” to managing ESG risks, receiving a D or E rating as a result. With the finance community exploring and ranking business approaches to ESG risks now is the time to dedicate more focus on articulating what your organisation is doing across environmental, social and governance issues that are material to your business.

British American Tobacco’s International sustainability manager Jennie Galbraith has been working to map the company’s risk against ESG frameworks, but also noted the need to make sure that corporate purpose was tied into any messaging on environmental and social performance.

"CSR professionals have access to rigorous reporting frameworks to counter the allegations of greenwash, and there is a role for that,” Galbraith said. “But it creates a poor form of communication for the man on the street and mainstream investors. We need to break away from the old ways of reporting in some senses.

“Making sure that we’re clear on what our purpose is and evolving our view is important. It takes away some of the need for the jargon and equally it will translate to external communications. It is about having a consistent and clear corporate narrative that everything flows from.”

5) Community could rocket up the agenda

The S in ESG is getting more attention as a result of the pandemic, with a small selection of businesses failing to properly support their staff and local communities during the economic downturn.

Many believe that the role of a business in its local communities could become even more important to workers and customers post-pandemic and sustainability professionals can now use community engagement projects as a way to showcase their organisation’s purpose

The event sponsors Given’s managing director and co-founder Becky Willan noted that businesses could well be scrutinised for their role in society and that messaging on CSR would need to account for what was currently happening in said society.

“Relevance is such an important dimension to engagement and understanding where the audience are in their minds,” Willan said. As we start to get more certainty over the next few weeks and months, there is scope to use this as an opportunity to engage about what matters and on an organisation’s role in the community, and reconnecting with bigger issues that don’t feel quite as relevant right now.

“There will be an opportunity to look at business in a societal concept more broadly and to connect that to the environmental aspect.”

6) Businesses will need to become more transparent

Building on point five and the need for more articulation on community outreach, businesses should be aware that they cannot greenwash their role in society or their relationship with the planet. We’ve seen with supply chain disruption that having accurate data and no hidden blind spots is key to proactively stopping climate-induced damages, and the same will apply moving forward.

Whether its transparency in the sense of having an understanding of risks and opportunities outside of your own operations, or being transparent about negative contributions, businesses will need to be ready to have much more honest and data-driven conversations.

Little Freddie’s environmental and sustainability manager Nicola Smith said: “We’ve had conversations with customers over social media and you’re dealing with a totally different customer because there are more engagement and interest. We will push ourselves to explain more as we go on with our reporting journey.

“We’re wanting to engage with our suppliers more and more and we need to demonstrate that we’re being responsible and that’s why putting out a report can never by a bad thing. It can be time-consuming but it’s never not worth it.”

7) The sustainability report isn’t going away

We’ve asked previously on edie whether a switch to integrated reporting – amongst a plethora of other hybrid options – could be the death knell for the traditional standalone sustainability report. However, it is apparent that the sustainability report will be a crucial tool in the sustainability professional’s communications arsenal, albeit evolving slightly compared to its current iterations.

Capgemini’s global head of environmental sustainability James Robey said: “If you’re not careful, the actual production of the report can be all-encompassing, but there’s a balance on the annual cycle of a report, and the regular monthly reporting and being able to use that data to make monthly decisions.

“The annual sustainability report will be around for most organisations, but alongside it, we’ll see some micro reporting on sustainability-relevant data to different stakeholders. This could potentially be very specific and I suspect we’ll see much more nuanced micro-reporting.”

Matt Mace



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