An expert’s guide on effective sustainability communications

Following our recent article discussing the issues facing organisations when it comes to Greenwashing and Greenhushing, we thought it was time to talk about how a business can implement an effective sustainability communications strategy with confidence.

One of the most important strategies a business can adopt when it comes to climate change is to be part of the conversation. An organisation has a responsibility to not only ensure that they are working towards achieving net-zero targets but also a responsibility to help educate customers, employees, and the wider sector. However, communication around sustainability isn’t always simple, it needs to be considered, clear and honest, and requires a business to ‘own’ the challenges and successes along the way.

Stakeholder engagement will provide a business with invaluable insight into the issues its audiences are most interested in and how they want to be communicated to. This stakeholder engagement is vital when it comes to identifying where a business should be focusing its efforts and, more importantly, if it has been neglecting any areas.

Although sustainability communications can often be seen as a challenge, when implemented effectively it presents an opportunity to enhance your reputation and to gain a competitive advantage. Whether you’re looking to communicate your strategy to consumers, stakeholders, or other business leaders, we recommend that the following factors are considered before any announcements are made.

1) Make sure your own house is in order

Before you announce any sustainability related work, including reports and targets, it is vital that there is already a sustainability strategy well underway, even if it is a work in progress. It is important that this strategy is based on an analysis of your business’ operations and the impact you have on the wider environment. This audit is often completed with outside help from organisations such as carbon footprinting experts Emitwise or an ESG consultancy such as Simply Sustainable who can take a ‘birds eye view’.

If a business begins talking about sustainability without considering its own impact on the environment first, there is a risk of being accused of Greenwashing. To be deemed as credible, it is crucial that an organisation has a firm understanding of the impact its operations have on the environment and is committed to making change.

2) Stay true to who you are

A sustainability narrative must be authentic to the business. Before publishing a sustainability strategy, you should ensure that any commitments are true to its values and the realities of day-to-day operations. Recognising what sustainability means for your organisation will help you set relevant goals that can truly make an impact.

Businesses must also be inclusive in their tone and channels – ensuring that they don’t alienate the very stakeholders they want to engage and take on the sustainability journey. Taking an inauthentic, or consciously different tone with your sustainability communications, or releasing materials or updates on new channels may in fact bypass your audiences – or worst case be viewed as evasive.

Before you develop a sustainability communications strategy, you need to first of all identify the audiences you’re targeting, their touchpoints with the business and their motivations, and map your communications strategy and messaging to this ecosystem.

3) Keep it simple and don’t overpromise

It might be tempting to exaggerate what you’re doing (even just through a sense of pride!) or to set over ambitious (and unrealistic) targets (with the best intentions). However, communication should be simple, honest, and targets should be realistic otherwise there is a risk of being open to criticism if a business adds more complexity to the issue or fails to achieve over ambitious targets.

To help audiences understand why a business has made certain commitments, it is important to substantiate any claims. By talking about long term plans, with tangible and realistic targets, you can demonstrate the true impact your business can have on the environment. A great way to do this is by visualising the data and key statistics, making it more digestible for key audiences.

4) Don’t be afraid to communicate areas of weakness

To remain truthful and transparent, all areas of sustainability relevant to your business should be discussed. For some, this may raise concerns about flagging areas of weakness. However, Greenhushing is just as damaging as Greenwashing, so staying silent is no longer an option.

Instead, proactively address areas in need of improvement to reflect, and demonstrate that you’re holding your business accountable and have long-term plans to overcome these issues. This declaration of intent will need to be followed up with regular updates to show your audiences that progress is being made.

5) Ensure you have a well-structured strategic communications strategy

Once you know who you want to target and the sustainability story you want to tell, the next stage is ensuring an effective delivery of communication. For the right messaging to reach the right audience at the right time, a clear plan is vital. This plan can include timelines which indicate when targets or milestones should be achieved to help you stay on track and hold yourself accountable. It is also key that all areas of the business are kept informed of the plan, from sales and legal to comms teams and HR – it is critical that your people are all aware of the announcements being made and how it impacts their work and their job.

There are so many ways for a business to make sure its message gets heard, and the most successful channels and tactics will depend on the audience. A well-considered communication strategy can not only get your story across, but it can also engage a broader audience, grow your reputation, and increase competitive advantage. From thought leadership content, to annual reports, to digital tools – the options are endless.

To find out more about our experience helping organisations communicate their sustainability objectives click here. Get in touch today to discuss how we could support your organisation.

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