Communications can play a dual role in improving sustainability impacts: They alert us to problems, persuade us about solutions, and help us spur actions now, and at the same time, they shape our values and perceptions in the longer term. This makes sustainability communications crucial to anyone who wants to transform business models, consumer behavior, or even whole industries.
Leaders at the BSR Conference 2014 identified three new frontiers of sustainability communications that can help accelerate transformation.
Frontier #1: Activate Behavior Change through Human Insights
Corporations are gradually moving from marketing that instills consumers with a desire for aspirational products to marketing that drives consumers to shift behaviors toward sustainable lifestyles. To do this, companies are using messaging that consumers can relate to.
H&M Managing Director and CEO Karl-Johan Persson announced that the multinational retailer is developing new sustainability labels disclosing the environmental and social impacts of its clothing. This approach will not only help customers make informed buying decisions and grasp sustainability in a tangible way; it will also reshape supply chain transparency in the industry.
Similarly, Zady, called one of the “World’s Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in Retail” by Fast Company in 2014, builds its strategic success on “emotional connections” by blending commerce and storytelling. The site puts its clothing makers and sustainability information about its products at the core of Zady’s communications, according to Cofounder Maxine Bédat.
Frontier #2: Embrace the “Moral Imperative”
As companies engage more deeply in sustainability, the idea of bringing value to both shareholders and society is becoming mainstream. The reach and purpose of business is being redefined, and sustainability communications can help companies embrace the “moral imperative” for corporations to stand up for the greater good.
In his plenary address, GlaxoSmithKline CEO Sir Andrew Witty said, “Keeping in step with society is what responsible business is all about.” Witty announced that if the company’s malaria vaccine comes to market following regulatory approvals, GlaxoSmithKline would make it available at a price that is more accessible to the people who need it, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.
Participant Media—an entertainment company that inspires social change through its content, including the production of films such as An Inconvenient Truth, Lincoln, or Syriana—has developed an index to measure the impact of its communications by asking audiences how they were affected by a film’s content and what actions they took after seeing it.
Frontier #3: Translate, Translate, Translate
Translating science-based facts into clear messages is the crucial responsibility of sustainability communications.
To prove this point during a session on effective climate communications, Andrew Revkin, senior fellow for environmental understanding at Pace University (and author of the New York Times’ Dot Earth blog) shared a National Geographic video that explains the difference between weather and climate using the simple analogy of a dog and a man walking on the beach. Weather is the short-term, unpredictable fluctuation of the atmosphere, represented by a dog chaotically capering on a leash. On the contrary, climate is the average of weather over many years, like the trajectory of a man walking near the shore.
To fully realize the positive social and environmental impacts that these new frontiers of sustainability communications can bring, companies must integrate the sustainability and communications functions. This makes good business sense: Research from Verdantix found that when chief sustainability officers and chief marketing officers embed sustainability into branding and communications, their companies “benefit from revenue uplift and reputational benefits without significant additional spend.” Sustainability leaders such as Unilever are already doing this. As Chief Marketing Officer Keith Weed said in an interview with Harvard Business Review, marketing’s role is “identifying those deeper human needs and providing solutions. Done right, that can address social, environmental, and business-growth goals all at once.” The word is out, and the future is waiting.