Top 10 tips for telling your sustainability story

From growing "tentacles" to using staff as front-line communicators, the modern day sustainability professional can utilise a huge array of techniques to communicate their sustainability strategy in a way that engages stakeholders, employees and consumers alike.

Last week, edie hosted its biggest annual Sustainability Communications event yet, with around 160 delegates attending to learn how to enhance their brand’s value and drive stakeholder engagement through effective communications.

The event came at a time widely regarded as the start of a post-truth era, where consumers have lost trust and become sceptical in the wake of the recession, the fake news boom and CSR scandals from big-name brands, among other driving factors.

As consumer concerns swell outside of the business, internally, sustainability practitioners must be able to communicate across different business functions to ensure that a strategy is embedded, understood and acknowledged – including at a boardroom level. This is no easy feat as companies attempt to grow profits and capture new business opportunities.

Speakers from organisations which have become sustainability leaders in their respective sectors, including Proctor & Gamble (P&G) and InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) took to the stage throughout the day to prove that there is a silver lining in this crisis of distrust. They proved that this uncertainty continues to offer a chance for organisations to develop innovative communications strategies that tell a sustainability story in a transparent, engaging and meaningful way, both externally and internally. Here are ten of edie’s key takeaways from the event.

1) Tell the economic story in the boardroom

IHG vice president of global corporate responsibility, Kate Gibson, kicked off the day’s talks by highlighting the importance of communicating the benefits of investing in carbon-reduction measures in boardrooms – even when higher-ups resist the idea of short-term capital expenditure despite the prospect of long-term carbon reduction.

“As a parent brand, how we knit our brands together and how we link into sustainability is one of our big strategic challenges,” Gibson said. “Developing solutions to save carbon at scale and implementing them swiftly is essential; the hotel industry is growth-based yet centred around driving energy efficiency.

“There is a real recognition that we need to increase our level of investment in sustainability and our level of growth while tracking our responsible business agenda and embedding it into the core of how everybody works,” she added. “We need to all be pulling in the same direction, but it is a challenge.”

IHG is aiming for carbon-neutral certification by 2018 and is steering away from purchasing carbon offsets through a combination of more than 200 efficiency measures throughout its estate of more than 5,500 hotels. Gibson and her team have had to effectively communicate the benefits of these measures by outlining how they make economic sense.

2) Utilise SDGs to influence external behaviours

As the largest mobility retailer in the world, Shell Retail serves 30 million customers each day, the company’s head of global communications, Gin Carreon revealed. This means it can drive behaviour change not just internally, but amongst a wide audience externally with the help of the “robust” Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) framework.

“As the face of Shell, we ask how we can help our colleagues bring to life our purpose and convey it to our customers – everything starts and ends with the customer for us,” Carreon said. “Customers expect us to take action to improve our social and environmental impact. This makes business sense and can actually strengthen customer loyalty – but to encourage customers to take action and carry on the story, we need to create and deliver a framework of shared values.”

Carreon’s advice was echoed by Gibson, who noted that while the SDGs are “not perfect”, but they “give industries a common language” for both internal and external use. And during edie’s latest Mission Possible webinar, hosted in association with E.ON Energy last week, an expert panel of speakers concluded that aligning targets with the SDGs is an effective way of embedding sustainability into core business models.

3) It is important to be valued as well as valuable

Carreon went on to stress the importance of communicating your intrinsic links to customers – not just your profits and growth – as a means to drive sustainability in the boardroom. Research conducted by Shell Retail found that 70% of customers’ opinions on the company are driven by their interactions with front-line staff, making loyalty and customer opinion “highly valuable” in addition to finances, she said.

“That’s a big responsibility but a big opportunity as well,” Carreon said. “Customers are at the heart of what we do, so it’s important to remind ourselves and why we exist rather than simply focusing on what we do, how we do it and the value this generates.”

She added: “Putting a global social cause at the heart of how you do business will bring business benefits – in addition to having positive community impacts and making operations more sustainable. It is not enough to be valuable – you must be valued as well.”

4) Sustainability is a strategy not a department

During her conversation with edie content director Luke Nicholls, P&G’s vice president for global sustainability, Virginie Helias, explained that internal and external communications alike can be streamlined by ensuring that every employee is a part of your company’s sustainability strategy.

Helias said the biggest success of her career was “moving sustainability from a business department to an internal strategy” – namely the firm’s Ambition 2030 strategy. She added that this was achieved by “engaging the C-suites, turning them from passive supporters into active champions, both internally and externally”.

“There are a lot of parallels with digital – 10 years ago, there were a lot of digital managers,” she added. “I look forward to the day when saying you work on sustainability will sound as odd as saying you work on digital communications.

5) Setting ambitious goals is a sure-fire way to get noticed externally

Moving to external communications, Helias stressed the importance of setting ambitious goals in making an impact on customers and competitors – as well as getting much-needed press coverage.

“You need goals to drive personal accountability; it’s very important to signify that this is not business as usual, that it calls for extraordinary action,” she said. “It’s usually stimulating and inspiring for the entire industry.”

Procter & Gamble (P&G)’s Ambition 2030 strategy includes goals of ensuring all packaging is 100% recyclable or reusable, cutting greenhouse gas emissions at manufacturing sites in half and souring at least five billion litres of water from sustainable sources.  The strategy’s bold aims attracted praise from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which hailed it as a “sustainability leader”.

6) Sustainability professionals need to have ‘tentacles’

While noting the ability of flagship sustainability strategies to get all departments “singing from the same hymn sheet”, Canon EMEA’s director of sustainability, Stuart Poore, explained that sustainability professionals must also constantly be looking to “pull in” new narratives to keep communications fresh.

“The role of a sustainability professional needs to be quite tentacle-like in stretching out and clawing in all of the really important, juicy stories that help bolster their department’s profile,” Poore said. “It doesn’t always need to be about those flagship programmes that sustainability teams lead on; it could be a more holistic approach to the corporate profile.”

There are a host of external reports from the likes of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation or Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) that will contain key findings that will help shape the narrative of the stories you want to share.

7) Use your products to drive engagement

Canon is currently using a variety of incentives to get its consumers to use its cameras and other recording equipment to tell the company’s sustainability narrative. On the consumer side, its Young People Programme encourages youths to capture footage and still images showcasing pressing stories in their home countries – such as the refugee crisis in Germany and the moves being made to get children back to school in post-conflict Iraq. These visual stimuli are then contextualised with text before being circulated internally and externally.

Poore said: “This programme has put our leadership team in a different place and has helped it to feel much more comfortable in a social space as opposed to just focusing in on the commercial aspect and the product – this is an example of communication shifting a business model.”

He explained that by allowing consumers to tell their own stories using its branded products, Canon is “moving away from talking at people and towards co-creating sustainability and communications solutions with them”.

8) You can’t tell your consumers everything

During her talk on communicating with consumers, Costa’s head of sustainability, Victoria Moorhouse, explained that trying to tell your consumers everything about your sustainability strategy as a large retail company will likely overload them with information.

“Everyone that works in a big corporation will have a sustainability strategy with lots of different things in it and I think if you try and communicate too much the message simply gets lost and no one knows what you are doing,” she said.

“It’s really important to communicate the right thing and to communicate what consumers care about. To determine what that is, the simplest starting point is to actually ask them.”

Moorhouse explained that, as the UK’s largest coffee shop chain, Costa’s current hot topic to communicate to consumers is recyclable coffee cups. The company announced last month its bold commitment to recycle up to 500 million coffee cups a year by 2020 – the equivalent of its entire annual sales of takeaway cups – at a financial cost to the business.

9) Your staff are your front-line communicators

As a former store manager, Costa communication and engagement officer Jodi Wheatley explained how staff in retail businesses can act as a key ‘channel’ to bridge the gap between internal and external communications. She explained that once you have determined what you do want to communicate with your consumers, staff can become “ambassadors” in getting this message across.

“The 21,000 baristas that we have here in the UK are our front-line communicators to our customers and if there is a disconnect between what our baristas are saying and what we are communicating through all our other channels, we are very quickly going to lose consumer trust,” Wheatley said.  “Therefore, great internal communications are absolutely key to getting everything else right.”

Relating this back to cup recycling, Moorhouse added: “We can tell customers to recycle cups in-store or bring old cups in to be recycled but if customers go into stores and they don’t have an amazing experience where staff take part, or if our teams don’t know about our schemes and aren’t engaged with them, all of that work we have done to put the message out there is essentially lost.”

Prior to this talk, Gibson and Carreon both concluded that it was often easier to speak to front-line staff than to higher-ups, and that these discussions provided more opportunities for communicating externally after all.

10) Accept that you will never be able to convince everyone

A fitting way to round off our line-up of key takeaways is to come back to Helias, who emphasised the fact that even the most effective sustainability communications plan cannot alter the behaviours or opinions of 100% of your company’s employees, competitors or clients.

“You won’t be able to change everyone,” she explained. “You need to start with the coalition of the willing, I call them my 1%, and with those people experiment to make something real.”

Behaviour change is problematic in the sense that there is no silver bullet and each staff member is swayed by their own motivations and drivers. Reaching out to everyone, especially as a global business, is an impossible task, but planting seeds through a “coalition of the willing” should at least ensure that sustainability reaches all areas of the business. 

Sarah George

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