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5 Musts for Communicating Sustainability

Sustainability reporting has become a mainstream business practice. Failure to publish a sustainability report and engage in practices designed to help the environment can hurt a company’s reputation and its business.

That being said, nothing will hurt a company’s reputation more than engaging in greenwashing. Far too often businesses have been sued or accused of false claims of environmental stewardship when in fact the organization hasn’t invested one iota in sustainability.

Unfortunately, these types of scenarios happen over and over again, and it causes consumers to be skeptical of almost all claims of “being green.”

Eric Mower, chairman and CEO of Eric Mower + Associates, recently delivered a presentation called “Communicating Sustainability in a Skeptical World” during the Corporate Energy Efficiency & Sustainability Communications Seminar held at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

In his speech, Mower said, “It’s no surprise that the credibility of sustainability messaging is troubled. To say that there is skepticism in the marketplace would be an understatement. People aren’t just skeptical of what sustainability stands for, they’re skeptical of what’s being communicated to them about it and why they should believe it — especially when some of the biggest brands in the world have bamboozled customers for years regarding sustainability claims. It makes that message much harder to sell for every brand, big or small.”

Mower also noted that this skepticism is cultivated through all facets of the world around us. “Some of the world’s largest brands have created these conditions, as have politicians, celebrities, educators, clergy, athletes, business executives and others. This is a reality beyond our control. But we can control how we communicate with our publics. And the only effective antidote to skepticism is trust.”

Trust doesn’t come overnight, and it requires consistent discipline on behalf of brand teams and their organizations to ensure they are communicating about sustainability in the right way. Below are five “musts” Eric Mower spoke about to get you started:

Be insightful.

What is special or different about your offering? What hidden truths have yet to be revealed about customers, markets, and competition? Or perhaps, it’s not that your offering is different from the competition, but rather it’s your perspective on the offering that sets you apart. A message about “cost savings” due to increased energy efficiency could also be a message about increased discretionary income. The Department of Energy and the Ad Council created a series of PSAs aimed at educating homeowners on the ways saving energy could help them to save more money for the things they really want or need. As the campaign slogan said, “Save energy, save vacation!”

Be creative.

Nobody wants to see a picture of a building while reading a headline about improved energy efficiency. What can you communicate to your audience to create an emotional connection to sustainability and its benefits?

Photographer J. Henry Fair decided to use art to inspire curiosity about the environmental consequences of human consumption. His photos share a bird’s-eye view of toxic waste created by a variety of industries. The images present a color-scape of interesting textures and designs, inspiring people to wonder what they’re seeing.

“If I take a big picture of a belching factory on the river, that says something. But if I get a telephoto lens and zoom in on the swirling, beautiful colors in the waste pit at that factory, well, that becomes an abstract expressionist piece of art that, more than the documentary shot of the whole scene, makes viewers stop and ask questions. Once someone stops to ask questions, then you’ve got their interest,” he said.

Be engaging.

Skeptics have questions, and questions should inspire conversations and an exchange of information and ideas. What can you express that engages through relevance? And what are you doing to ensure your customers have ample opportunity to engage with you in their preferred communication methods?

Using a social media survey through its utility members, E Source presented a list of the “Top 10 Utilities in Social Media.” These utilities were recognized by industry peers for their “engaging content and good customer communication or customer service.” Specifically, these companies demonstrated:

  • Unique, engaging content
  • Excellent customer service
  • Innovative and fun campaigns
  • Balanced communication across all facets of the company — from company news and community engagement, to customer service posts and handling issues
  • A variety of platforms and multimedia content in their publishing.

Be human.

This requires talking human. Credibly. Convincingly. Personally. Even in business-to-business communications, it’s essential to remember that you’re dealing with people and, while it’s important to recognize industry language, the conversation need not stick to technical terms and industry jargon to get the message across. In fact, the more simple your message is, the less likely your audience will be to seek the fine print and figure out what kind of hidden meaning might be lurking within.

Be truthful.

Make your case for sustainability in a simple, honest way. Just the truth. This echoes being human, but reinforces that even when sharing a simple message, it’s important to share an honest and thorough one. As Director of National Advertising Division and a Senior Vice President of the Council of Better Business Bureaus Andrea Levine cautions to manufacturers, “You can’t take one piece out of the life cycle and say we’re good because at this point in our production we didn’t produce any environmental impact.” It’s about the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

EMA brings a wide range of experience in effectively communicating sustainability initiatives and developing sustainability reports. To learn how we can create insights that spark interest in your brand, contact specialty leader Stephanie Crockett at scrockett@mower.com or 315.413.4355.