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Key sustainability communications strategies for businesses

Sustainability communications are key to reaching lowered carbon emissions and other environmental goals. Learn practices that help improve outcomes and ways to avoid greenwashing.

Effective sustainability communications can help engage stakeholders, promote important change and convey critical information -- but none of that is easy.

That's why it's so important to understand how to approach environmental, social and governance (ESG) and sustainability communications in the right way.

Here are some best practices to follow when sharing information about organizational sustainability efforts.

Use language the audience understands

Communicators should beware of using jargon and must be sure to define sustainability terms in language that's meaningful to the audience.

Sometimes sustainability communications feature too much technical language that an audience, such as front-line employees, doesn't understand, said Suzy Giles, associate partner, ESG communications at The ERM Group International Limited, a sustainability consultancy headquartered in London. The audience may not even understand what Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions are in broad strokes, much less the nuances of each.

Communications teams should use accessible language and real-world examples.

"[Stakeholders] have to be able to talk about sustainability to someone else, but they've first got to be able to understand it enough to explain it," Giles said.

Establish consistent sustainability communications

Those in charge of ESG and sustainability communications should ensure alignment across different groups and departments.

And that doesn't always happen.

For example, when marketing and communications teams are not aligned, the messaging can be inconsistent. To prevent this, encourage the following groups to collaborate:

  • Marketing.
  • Sales.
  • Corporate communications.
  • Investor communications.
  • Human resources.
  • Information technology.
  • Sustainability communications (if the company has a team dedicated to this).
  • Finance.
  • Legal.

"Make sure that you check the different communications that have gone out [because] there are so many different channels," Giles said. "If you're not careful the different groups could be saying different things."

Target consumers' real concerns

Sustainability teams must address many different groups and understand particular issues with each.

Authenticity is paramount when communicating a company's sustainable efforts, said Randi Kronthal-Sacco, senior scholar at the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business.

That sentiment was underscored by "Effective Sustainability Communications: A Best Practice Guide for Brands & Marketers," a report from NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business and global communications firm Edelman, published in June 2023.

"What we learned from this research is everything you do needs to be authentic and real," Kronthal-Sacco said. "Greenwashing will come back to bite you in a big way."

Authenticity is important regardless of the audience in question, but organizations will need to pay special attention to consumer communications.

Consumers respond best to sustainability communications that address themselves and their families, particularly when it comes to health and finances, according to the report. Some examples of language that grabs their attention include the following:

"Made without chemicals harmful to humans/the environment …"

"Saving you money on energy bills …"

There is an adage that every good marketer would use, which is WIFM -- What's in it for me? That holds true for sustainability as well.
Randi Kronthal-SaccoSenior scholar, NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business

Consumers also respond to communications that discuss the following:

  • Local farmers.
  • Children and future generations.
  • Animal health.
  • Sustainable sourcing.
  • Local sourcing.

On the other hand, the research shows that consumers care less about the following issues:

  • Scientific causes behind sustainability (though consumers do care about the effects).
  • Traceability.
  • Certifications.
  • Packaging (except when the messaging declares that the packaging is made from 100% recyclable material).

"Consumers are really egocentric, we've found," Kronthal-Sacco said. "There is an adage that every good marketer would use, which is WIFM -- What's in it for me? That holds true for sustainability as well."

Get clear on net zero goals

Companies can get into trouble when they declare a net-zero goal if they haven't devised a plan on how they will reach it.

"Don't make a commitment without thinking through what that actually means," Giles said.

A net-zero goal must be realistic for the specific organization, she said. Some organizations may not be able to achieve net zero by 2050 because it's just not possible. In this case, she suggests communicating that while the company doesn't have a net-zero date yet, it is on a pathway toward establishing one.

"There's a rush for people to make that [net-zero] claim because lots of people are doing it, and you want to make sure you don't lose your advantage in the market," Giles said. "But it's really important that it's connected to your core business strategy, and you have a plan."

Part of creating a sustainability plan requires first understanding factors such as the organization's current practices, environmental impacts and carbon footprint, including the digital carbon footprint.

While net-zero goals are becoming an expectation, it's important that organizations know their current emissions and other sustainability impacts to determine how they'll achieve their claim, said Anthony Levy, founder and chairman of Circularity First, a sustainable IT consulting firm headquartered in Stockport, Cheshire, U.K.

Net-zero goals should also be clearly defined, he said. For example, does an organization's claim encompass Scopes 1, 2 and 3, or is it only focused on the first two?

"You have to define what you are including," Levy said.

Sustainability communication: Secrets to engaging stakeholders and employees

Be transparent

Sustainability is a journey, not a single-event endeavor, and no one gets it right 100% of the time. Being open about the journey can help avoid some common problems.

One of the biggest challenges sustainability communications practitioners face is that sustainability is a moving target: Even the most carefully developed strategies may fail, and sometimes it's difficult to deliver the bad news. If these communications are to be authentic, however, companies must be willing to concede that they have yet to figure sustainability out.

"No one completely understands all the impacts of their organization, let alone just their carbon [footprint]," Levy said. "The goal should be to really try and understand where we are now, and to be humble and open about what we don't know." This means that organizations should not only share their successes, but their failures as well.

"People are worried about greenwashing and greenhushing, but I think you mitigate those issues if you're really, really transparent," he said.

Sustainability stakeholders can start conversations and be open about hits and misses, Levy said. For example, they can discuss what they've learned so far and what small successes they've had, as well as failures and lessons learned from those.

As in other areas of business, taking full responsibility can engender trust.

When companies follow this practice they demonstrate accountability, said Carsten Baumann, solution architect and director of strategic initiatives at Schneider Electric, an energy management solutions manufacturer headquartered in Paris.

"If we don't make progress as fast as we want to -- or maybe it's reversing for various reasons -- we need to be transparent about it," Baumann said. This gives companies the opportunity to explore why they're not as far along as they had projected and -- more importantly -- communicate the actions they will take to improve.

"We have to report on it to hold ourselves accountable," Baumann said. "Because without accountability, things can be easily shoved under the rug."

Understand nuances of ESG vs. sustainability

Communicating about sustainability efforts vs. ESG efforts can be different, so it's important to understand those nuances.

ESG communications focus on communicating a set of metrics related to the reporting required by investors and rating agencies, said Tensie Whelan, founder and director of the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business in New York.

Sustainability communications should focus on the following, according to Whelan:

  • The organization's sustainability strategy.
  • The sustainability goals it has committed to achieving.
  • How the company is performing against those goals.

"At a corporate communications level, you're setting out what you're trying to accomplish and why, your targets, and how you're getting there," she said.

Sustainability and ESG communications may target several different audiences, including the following, according to Whelan:

  • Nongovernmental organizations.
  • Regulators.
  • Investors.
  • Suppliers.
  • Employees.
  • Consumers.

"Obviously with investors, you may go deeply into some ESG reporting metrics that come out of that broader sustainability communications strategy," she said.

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