Storytelling skills crucial for sustainability success, says Sainsbury’s

EXCLUSIVE: Being an expert storyteller and "humanising" environmental projects have become vital skills for sustainability professionals to embed a strong CSR culture throughout their organisation, the head of sustainability at Sainsbury's has claimed.

In a revealing on-stage interview at edie’s inaugral Sustainability Skills Workshop in London today (26 January), Paul Crewe emphasised the importance of “good storytelling”during his oversight of the transformation of Sainsbury’s approach to CSR.

“I came on board around eight years ago to fix how facilities were being run because things were was broken,” Crewe said. “Sustainability was never heard of and certainly wasn’t used in language. But as my career has grown, so has sustainability, and what it has come to mean for the company.

“Right now, I have a fantastically passionate team who are really proud of what we do and every day they are working like Duracell bunnies. It’s my job to make sure that the passion can be understood in a really clear way.

“I can’t present this atmosphere to the board in an overenthusiastic manner. But channelled enthusiasm creates real business case opportunities, which is what the board are interested in.”

Purpose with passion

For Crewe, an ability to “tell the story of sustainability” has been key to getting boardroom buy-in with big sustainability initiatives and driving behaviour change throughout the organisation. He noted how he managed to gain his board’s backing for “one of Sainsbury’s most cost-intensive sustainability projects” by “littering the boardroom with provocative images” that visualised his plans.

“Using these images instead of a Powerpoint presentation stopped the board from reading the end page before I had even had a chance to say hello,” Crewe said. By taking the time to understand the personalities of those he was appealing to, he was able to convert data into a personal story that “converted business into passion”.

He added: “If you know your audience – truly know your audience – then it becomes easier to appeal to them. You can home in on their passions and you can even mirror them to grow this passion across the company.”

Green advocates

Effective storytelling within Sainsbury’s was recently evident through the retailer’s ‘UK’s Greenest Grocer‘ campaign, which aimed to shrink energy use by 3% through people power alone, without using posters or messages. Sainsbury’s has also previously held ‘Dragon’s Den’-style competitions to drive new sustainable innovations from within the company.

By using humans as “sustainability advocates” in these ways, Crewe said that members of staff became much more interested in sustainability because they were undergoing their own story in order to meet store targets.

“I’m not trying to draw up ways to brainwash companies to do the right thing,” he 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.”

Paul Crewe was speaking to edie editor Luke Nicholls at edie’s Sustainability Skills workshop, which provided sustainability professionals with the skills they need to take the next step in their careers.

Luke Nicholls & Matt Mace

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