Sustainability Storytelling: Creating a Narrative that Matters

November 13, 2013

Stephanie Schwartz, 2014 MBA Candidate and Society & Business Lab Fellow, USC Marshall School of Business

Patagonia’s fall 2013 catalog opens with an essay, “The Elephant in the Room,” in which mountaineer, adventurer, and Patagonia Vice President of Environmental Affairs Rick Ridgeway described being surrounded by global executives during a forum on corporate responsibility. As the leaders discussed their companies’ progress on environmental issues, Ridgeway leaned over to a Google executive and pointed out that despite these efforts, “every global indicator of the health of our planet has continued to trend in the wrong direction.”

After this experience, Ridgeway decided not only to name the elephant in the room, but to launch a Patagonia campaign to get people to talk about it: Through the Responsible Economy initiative, Ridgeway wrote, Patagonia will “go deep, discussing it in essays in our catalogs, on our website, in blogs, emails, and in the displays in our stores,” inviting citizens and leading thinkers to contribute.

At the BSR Conference 2013, Ridgeway shared this example of how stories about sustainability challenges—even ones that pose difficult questions about the growth of business—can help promote progress. By nature, stories give us a connection to our past, an inspiring vision for our future, a tangible human experience to share, and a forum for discussing solutions to tough problems.

At the Conference, it became clear that sustainability stories are most powerful when they share one of three attributes: They are personal, they connect to the big picture, and they paint a positive picture of the future.

Make It Personal
When magazine editor and author Dominique Browning decided to launch Mom’s Clean Air Force with the environmental organization EDF, she had a particular agenda in mind: It should not look like a typical environmental website. Instead, Browning wanted to reach out directly to her audience of moms based on their universal feeling of love for their children, their families, and their communities. At the BSR Conference, she emphasized the importance of using love to share sustainability stories. “A citizen, a consumer should feel that there is love driving your mission forward,” she said. “This is the key ingredient that builds community and attracts people to your story.”

This idea was also apparent in the plenary address by former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, who spoke about the need to change the narrative about climate change. This topic, so riddled with science and data points, is really about people, development, and human rights. She demanded that the audience take it personally: “What can you do to make the transition to a low-carbon future?”

In response, a member of the audience retorted, “But what can we do?”

For business, the role can be to educate consumers about sustainable behaviors through storytelling. This idea was explored in another session on how companies can help promote sustainable lifestyles. For instance, eBay and Patagonia formed a partnership called “Common Threads” that creates a new market for used Patagonia clothing. Patagonia encourages interest in used clothing in part through its Worn Wear blog, where readers share stories about the adventures they have had with their old Patagonia gear. One year after the initiative was launched, eBay sold 25 percent more used Patagonia products.

Connect It to the Big Picture
In an address filled with inspiring clips produced by his company Participant Media (motto: a well-told story can make a difference), CEO Jim Berk shared a short film showing a boy kicking a soccer ball throughout his day—scrimmaging at a local match, bouncing it on his knee, and finally flipping it around to reveal an outlet, where he plugged in his light at home. The upshot: More people in the world have soccer balls than access to electricity, so four women from Harvard developed a ball that stores energy.

From a storytelling perspective, this film captured a universal feeling about the power of sport. While not everyone relates to the challenge of access to energy, a lot of people can learn about the issue through a story about the love of soccer.

For the field of sustainability, it’s important to break out of our silo and think about how these stories relate to the big picture—to universal themes like love, humanity, sports, freedom, and good citizenship. As Berk put it, positive change “all starts with a story well-told.”

In a pre-Conference training session on “CSR 301,” which explored emerging trends and leading practices in corporate sustainability, one participant noted that her company finds it challenging to tell its sustainability story because so many companies have the same tale—and it’s starting to sound like greenwashing.

In response, BSR Managing Director Laura Gitman pointed out that it’s important to identify the bigger-picture brand attribute and tell that story. For example, Nike’s new Free and Flyknit lines are marketed largely as performance shoes, true to Nike’s story and promise of developing innovative products for athletes. But these lines were also driven largely by Nike’s sustainability goals, and Nike has reduced waste by 80 to 90 percent in the production of these footwear lines by using innovative and fewer materials.

In this way, sustainability can be woven into the core of a company’s identity, making the stories around it authentic, natural, and connected to a larger story that is core to the values of the business.

Envision a Positive Future
Moving forward, sustainability storytellers should aim to frame the sustainability challenges and opportunities we face with a light at the end of the tunnel. In the Sustainability Storytelling panel discussion, founder Todd Reubold asked the audience, “When was the last time you heard a story about the environment that was positive?” The audience was silent. While Reubold was referring to the stories we hear in the news, companies also have a responsibility create a positive vision for our future that shows citizens and consumers what can be achieved.

Storytelling for sustainability can be challenging because we don’t have all of the answers, so the stories are not yet complete. But our stories should have a clear path—a beginning, a middle, and an ending that demonstrates hope for the future. It is this hope that Mary Robinson invoked when she quoted Archbishop Desmond Tutu during her address: “I’m not an optimist,” she said. “I am a prisoner of hope.”


To see more highlights from the BSR Conference 2013, read "The Future of Sustainable Business: Finding Your Power in Networks" and "BSR Conference 2013: Viewing Sustainability Challenges through a Human Lens."

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