FRIDAY 7 FEB 2020 10:49 AM


The year 2020 will be a reckoning of sorts for corporate sustainability and governance strategies.

Many companies worldwide have implemented objectives and strategic plans that have made 2020 the target year for reducing emissions, improving ESG credentials and working more effectively within their communities. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) are in the world’s focus as international political summits are scheduled. But, as 2020 kicks off, 12 sustainability and communications professionals met to discuss the challenges still facing businesses in this decisive year.

The impetus was clear: it’s on the companies to make change. The consensus around the table was that governments have the imperative to act on a broad scale and consumers should recycle and do their part, but that real change will come from corporate action. “If we as individuals want to make changes, we as organisations have to be the drivers. Individuals efforts are not enough,” said one attendee from the aerospace sector. “Every organisation and every industry that takes it seriously has the responsibility to be the push and not to just wait for the consumers to ask for it. Because if we wait, we will never achieve what we’re trying to achieve. It’s just not good enough.”

Sustainability, safe to say, is firmly and inextricably on the corporate agenda. But how the change companies are making is communicated is another question.

The challenge starts at the organisational level. Some attendees were heads of communications, others heads of sustainability, others reported into or oversaw similar roles. But, unlike with marketing, per se, where a CMO or head of marketing is where the buck stops, there is yet to be a single home for sustainability communications within an organisation.

Huw Maggs, MD of Salterbaxter, said, “We’ve seen communications professionals have to lean in and take more responsibility to integrate sustainability into comms at the corporate level and the brand level. But we’ve also seen a lot of our clients who are heads of sustainability having to get a lot more comfortable with understanding the way that corporate and brand communications works.” This, he said, poses a challenge for sustainability professionals who might be managing purpose-led operations, but have less knowledge of communications and messaging strategy. This challenge was compounded by the fact that sustainability has grown out of compliance and disclosure areas before becoming an issue about which corporate stakeholders care. Maggs adds, “We’ve seen a real shift in the capabilities that communications and sustainability professionals have to take on. The arena that companies are really grappling with at the moment is how to filter communications down to the brand level and the product and category level even.”

In some cases, like a company in the automotive technology space, comms has driven the sustainability agenda. Because of the shift toward an interest in electric vehicles, communicators in this sector have had to focus on environmental issues. And, in this case at least, can be responsible for pushing the corporate agenda toward a more environmentally friendly positioning.

But another challenge exists in terms of the supply chain. One attendee said, “I work for a small department store; family owned. We are reliant on what other brands are doing. That’s a very different proposition.” Suppliers may not adhere to the same sustainable goals as the brand itself, thus questions may arise determining what is more important: sustainability or sales?

However, other attendees discuss the steps they are taking to understand their consumers and educate them about the opportunities available with a greater focus on sustainability as a means of overcoming this obstacle. Most attendees agree that its difficult to get consumers – whether that’s other businesses or the general public – to pay a premium for sustainable products. In aerospace, travel, finance, retail and more, this is an issue that has yet to be solved. There has been some change – as with more consumers considering electric vehicles – but that change hasn’t extended as much as possible to purchasing habits. Electric cars are still expensive. Eco-friendly clothing brands are expensive. Hybrid airplanes are expensive. And its a premium many are unwilling or unable to pay.

Beyond the price premium, though, is a deeper issue. Audiences may still be sceptical of corporate authenticity in sustainability communications. Maggs said, “There is an audience shift where there is a bigger expectation on organisations now that is a bit beyond that slightly more logical standard piece of trust and reputation where it gets into a more emotional space around belief. Do audiences truly believe that you’re truly committed to making meaningful change and how is that playing out in your business? Are you just ticking the boxes and satisfying the standards?” He adds, “If you are on the wrong side of that argument, you are going to be ignored. Or worse, you are going to be actively campaigned against.”

One attendee said this was a key concern. “I do battle every day,” they said, in attempting to communicate about important sustainability messages that affect not only the purpose agenda but the bottom line as well.

An attendee from a health tech brand said, “The rules of engagement have changed,” regarding social media and journalism. Now, companies have to be incredibly careful about what they’re presenting and how they’re positioning it, lest they be attacked online. Another agreed, “The challenge is what the media wants to talk about and then what you think would benefit the brand. How much do you push that agenda versus how much can you be truthful about something that isn’t a popular view?”

Challenger brands might have it easier, he suggests, in that they can position themselves as a more agile, youth-friendly, sustainability-minded alternative to the giants of the corporate world. But, its not impossible for traditional companies to change their communications around sustainability. To do so requires a “mix of long-term transformation and short-term tactical approaches that can help you try and get more resonance with consumers and Gen Z,” according to Maggs.

Another attendee agreed. It’s not a choice of buying something or not buying something, flying or not flying, it’s about smarter consumption, they said. “We’ve got the opportunity as organisations to create a middle ground that allows people to feel better about the choice they’re making. But you also have the ability to scale and to adopt things in ways that are more comfortable on a corporate level.”

While the difficulties are rife in setting sustainability communications strategy, 2020 offers an opportunity. It is a chance to reexamine communications to this point, to reinforce the sustainable foundations of a brand, to redefine the evaluation of and reporting on sustainability communications. Maggs said, “If I think about 2020 in particular, there’s a lot happening this year around the SDGs and a lot of companies and indeed industries who’ve failed to meet commitments that they’ve set for 2020. I think the tone and the dynamic of the debate and conversation may be shifted this year. There’s a chance there might be some finger pointing going on.”

What that means for communicators is more education, more stakeholder engagement, the building of greater connections between the brand and sustainability objectives. As one attendee said, “It’s our job as communicators to drive forward real change.”

2020 will be a year of reckoning for sustainability communications. But those that have put in the effort to ground their brands in sustainable objectives are well placed to manage the impending shift to a greater environmental consciousness.

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