How to create successful sustainability communication
Companies today are not only expected to have a thorough sustainability process in place – the public also demands honest, transparent communication related to these efforts. We picked the brains of Berghs' Frederik Larsen and Moussa Mchangama – course instructors in the field of sustainable communication and founders of Copenhagen-based bureau In futurum – to see just what it takes to succeed when communicating on sustainability.
September 23, 2019
Hi Frederik & Moussa! Why is it important for a company to communicate their sustainability work to the public?
Sustainability communication is a tool for companies that have integrated sustainability into their strategy. It allows the company to tell customers, consumers, and other stakeholders what they do and how they do it. A big part of creating sustainable development in any industry is to show others that you are part of the change. Communicating honestly and showing how your company is contributing is important.
What are the most common pitfalls brands fall into when attempting to make sustainable communication?
There are two main pitfalls in sustainability communication. One is relying on your reporting to do the job for you. The company may be doing a lot to create sustainable change, but it doesn’t create value for the company if nobody knows about it. Reports are great, but transforming your achievements into something you can tell people about creates value for the company and pushes the sustainable agenda.
Not to align communication strategy and plans with a long-term sustainability strategy. Working in fast-paced environments, many brands and companies tend to look at one project at a time and communicate them separately, instead of considering every single project to be part of a bigger whole – just like all sustainability efforts should be part of an integrated, holistic strategy. Communicating in a project-based way opens up a lot of space for critique, risks of greenwashing, and confusion among consumers, simply because there is no greater perspective or overview.
What is “greenwashing,” and how do you advise brands to avoid it in their communication?
Greenwashing refers to the problem of companies trying to appear more sustainable than they are, through the use of marketing and communication tools. Greenwashing is mainly a risk if your communication about sustainability is not rooted in strategic actions. If you can back up your claims with reports outlining existing actions, a solid and ambitious plan for future actions, and a strategy that puts sustainable development at the center of your business, you have made yourself a lot less vulnerable to accusations of greenwashing.
Briefly explain the Doughnut Economy. How do you approach this concept in your work and teaching?
The Doughnut Economy is an economic model proposed by English economist Kate Raworth to show how environmental, social, and economic development are dependent on one another. The model is useful to demonstrate how sustainable development is all about creating a balance between these different aspects to secure a safe and just space for humanity.
What makes a company sustainable? Why bother communicating this?
Sustainability is really about the global balance between the way we administer natural, social, and economic resources. That’s what the Doughnut Economy and the science-based approach to sustainable development helps to clarify. That means a company can be considered more or less sustainable depending on what criteria we measure them on. In other words, claiming to be sustainable makes you vulnerable to criticism. Saying that your company contributes to sustainable development is much more concrete, and this is where communication is crucial. It is a way to describe the company’s specific contribution. It also provides a platform to accentuate in what context your company views itself – what’s the aim, purpose, and perspective? Why do you do what you do?
Your three best tips for getting started with sustainability communication.
The best place to start with sustainability communication is to get to know your company, both your business practices and your core values. Secondly, engage in thorough strategy development to make sure your sustainability communication has a foundation in commitments and actions.
Get help – getting started can be overwhelming and therefore, one of the key factors here is to seek out experts and consultants that can help guide the process, give perspective, and offer insights and answer questions. Second, don’t be afraid to ask all the dumb questions; it’s the only way to get around every single topic and to create a sound, future-proof communication strategy. Last but not least: know your product, your processes, your values, and your place in the world. That will make it a lot easier to communicate directly to your end-consumer – also in a sustainable way.
Briefly discuss some various approaches to sustainability communication.
There are different approaches to sustainability communication, depending on your audience. In the course at Berghs, we outline a number of them focusing on how to turn strategic actions, achievements, and progress into different forms of communication. In some cases, focusing on transparency is good, especially for corporate stakeholders. Focusing on values and how your customers relate to the work you do is another form.
Which brands have recently executed successful sustainability communication?
Letz Sushi is a great case. Fashion brand Mother of Pearl also provides great insights. Swedish fashion brand Asket has an interesting way of showing transparency on a value-driven basis.