Everyone’s talking about sustainability. So when you talk about it, how do you make your voice stand out?
Our world today is purpose-driven, and the number one overarching purpose is sustainability. Research confirms that customers are willing to pay a premium for sustainability; accordingly, they expect to hear from businesses and brands about how they define their role in a planet-positive society, how they are adjusting their offerings to make sure they contribute, and how they are making it happen quickly.
This changes how businesses must think and talk about themselves. Sustainable credentials are no longer something ‘nice to have’ in your marketing activities- they are a hygiene factor. You need to adopt, embody and communicate sustainable principles, and be prepared to back up these principles with real actions and results.
This is most immediately evident in the consumer world, where sustainable brand identities are proliferating. Whether it’s a simple change or a complex set of commitments, you’ll find brands broadcasting their progress in all sorts of ways.
In the B2B world, if anything it’s a more important – and more challenging – undertaking. Trade buyers, who often have a specific brief for sustainability, look for more than strong messages – they may expect detailed breakdowns of how products and campaigns contribute to different sustainable development goals (whether these are internal or society-wide). Despite this, the way you talk certainly still matters. You have to set your aims correctly: communicating that your business has not only thought about sustainability, or joined the sustainability race, but that it is a leader in this race, constantly innovating and finding new ways to have a positive impact.
To help you get there, consider some of these points:
Have a complete definition of sustainability
It’s not all about CO2. Of course, reaching carbon neutrality (or better) is at the centre of almost every sustainability vision statement ever written, and with good reason. But sustainability is a broad term, and there are many aspects you can contribute to depending on your industry and specialities.
These include: reducing emissions of other greenhouse gases (e.g. methane or sulphur hexafluoride); bringing about a circular economy with high component reuse and low waste; ensuring operator safety in factories and supply chains; promoting social and economic equality; having a positive effect on biodiversity and limiting land use change; and supporting local communities.
Adding some of these to your development goals can help you achieve a more comprehensive, high-impact transformation – and give you more stories to tell.
Show how it’s everyone’s responsibility
The days when sustainability talk consisted of press releases about charity 10km runs are at an end. For B2B companies, something more systemic and comprehensive is required. Alongside the contributions different products or services make, customers may want to see evidence of how you are tracking your impact at boardroom level, with KPIs and strategic milestones – so isolated initiatives won’t be enough.
That’s not to say you can’t talk about individual claims, internal changes or customer stories. Of course you can – but they will be more effective if you can tie them to company-wide goals and standards, or even give your efforts an overarching project name, such as PepsiCo’s pep+ campaign.
This way, you show that you retain sight of the big picture, with all your efforts built into an overall vision. To maximise this, try to showcase the endeavours of as many different teams and people as possible, highlighting that this is important to everyone in your company, not just an appointed ‘sustainability czar’.
Co-operate and reveal your secrets
The increasing cross-industry focus on Scope 3 emissions confirms that sustainability is best tackled collectively, not on your own. And just as your customers demand ever-greater sustainable credentials from you, you should do the same of your suppliers.
The upshot is that, when it comes to sustainability, you can share resources and insights openly across the market, resisting the long-standing norm of keeping everything to yourself. It might feel unintuitive at first, but if it works for your goals, why not?
This carries over into communications too. Don’t be afraid to tell stories about how you co-operate with customers, partners or even erstwhile competitors, getting closer as organisations to understand how you can really have an impact at scale. In a more general sense, you can also get audited by an independent body such as EcoVadis to put your credentials beyond doubt.
Make it about others, not you
Internally, you may pick your sustainability goals and initiatives based on what’s practical – dictated by your specialism, resources, contacts and knowledge. In other words, a ‘me-first’ approach.
This is understandable. But don’t make the mistake of talking about sustainability in the same way. In the context of global issues like climate change, resource shortages and inequality, you need the opposite approach: ‘impact first’.
The hero of your sustainability stories shouldn’t be you: it should be the people and ecosystems that are affected by your actions every day. Start with them, give a real sense of their needs, and work back to how you can help serve those needs – even if that’s just a bit part in the overall story.
For an example of how to make this work, check out these stories by surfing brand Finisterre. They could have put the time into writing about their clothing, or their latest offers; instead, they spent it writing about ocean health, fish and otter populations, and the people who support them. A content marketing tactic that adds a crucial element to their sustainability initiatives: it makes them real.
The real challenge: Talk simply
In this article we’ve covered how sustainability is a broad and multi-faceted issue. But highlighting complexity is a relatively common skill; much rarer is the ability to express complex issues simply.
Patagonia is one company that has cracked this. “Everything we make has an impact on the planet,” begins their explanation of their sustainability activities – not sugar-coating anything, but calmly describing their goals and activities, and going on to back this up with clear stories and statistics.
Yes, you’ll be expected to delve into the details of your impacts. But at the same time, stop regularly to ask yourself if you’re communicating as clearly and simply as possible. If you were in the lift with someone for 60 seconds, could you effectively sum up your sustainability vision in that time?
Remember why you’re doing this. Sustainability isn’t just something that looks good; it’s essential to securing your future. And there is already plenty of evidence that a sustainable investment is a profitable one. So it’s certainly worth adopting a holistic approach to sustainability, including in your communication – for people and the planet, and equally for your long-term prosperity.