How to Tell Your Sustainability Story: the Messier the Better

August 1, 2011
  • Melanie Janin

    Former Managing Director, Communications, BSR

We all know that a picture tells a thousand words and creative visuals are a powerful way to engage audiences around an issue of concern. In the world of sustainability communications, slideshows, video documentaries, and case study success stories are common—and often very effective—tools to highlight the many environmental, social, and economic challenges and opportunities facing global business today.  So the question becomes, in the mid of all this creative cacophony for the greater good, how will your company’s own sustainability story stand out from the crowd?

I had an ah-ha moment about this challenge today while reading social media guru Beth Kanter’s excellent blog, How Networked Non-Profits Are Using Social Media to Power Change. In a recent post, Kanter describes the “living case study,” a work-in-progress that shines the light on an issue or cause by sharing the ride, not simply celebrating the arrival. As Kanter writes, “While the traditional case study is tidy, packaged, and finished—the living case study is open to input, questions, reflections, and most of all, empowerment of peers.”

This notion of sharing a messy work-in-progress to audiences engaged in the business of sustainability is not new. Retail giant Walmart, for one, has been telling the story of its long and complicated sustainability journey for many years now, opening itself up to everything from caustic criticism to resounding praise from analysts, environmentalists, media, corporate leaders, consumers, and others. In fact, I would argue that Walmart’s willingness to open itself up to multiple stakeholders on how to minimize its global environmental footprint has been a large part of its sustainability success to date.

And while airing dirty laundry isn’t everyone’s first-choice approach to engagement, here are three quick reasons to consider sharing your sustainability struggles as you go:

  • Others have been there, done that. Learn from others who have faced the same challenges. If you ask for help to solve a particular challenge that’s keeping you up at night, you just might get it.
  • Social media loves social inquiry. Pose your challenges publicly through social media channels. Start a blog tracking your sustainability efforts. See who responds and engages. They might just become your next biggest advocate—or most loyal consumer.
  • True leaders have the guts to reach out and engage. As we explored in our recent BSR Report, leadership today is no longer equated with top-down, didactic messaging and communications. Include multiple voices into your platform for impact and change. The more you share, the more you stand to gain from the perspective of others. 

We’ll be exploring the nexus of leadership and storytelling this fall at the BSR Conference 2011 in San Francisco at a session with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward Humes (author of Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Walmart’s Green Revolution). Join us there to start mapping out the most effective ways to craft and share your sustainability story—warts and all.

Let’s talk about how BSR can help you to transform your business and achieve your sustainability goals.

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