Non-News is Good News

This article is part of a series of excerpts from the fifth annual State of Green Business Report, looking at trends in corporate sustainability. Download the free report from GreenBiz.com, and see all of our trends here.

Also, be sure to register for a free webcast taking place on Tuesday, February 7: The State of Green Busines 2012 - The Good News and Bad is hosted by Joel Makower and dives in to all the findings of the report. Click here to register.

What passes for state of the art in sustainable business rises continually from year to year. The same cannot be said of the state of the art of public relations and the media, mainstream and otherwise, to which they pitch story ideas. So many of the stories sent our way, both by inhouse and outside PR professionals, are of the been-there-done-that variety. So 20th century. They're simply not new -- or news.

Many of the things companies are doing have become so common that they are not, from a journalistic perspective, newsworthy. Two decades ago, the news was that a company achieved ISO 14001 certification, attesting that it had rudimentary processes in place to address its environmental impacts, particularly in the case of an accidental spill or emissions release. Every manufacturer issued press releases that managed to point out some "first" -- the first ISO 14000-certified company in a given city, a given industry, or something else. For a time, ISO 14000 certification was, newsworthy. But not for long.

Next, it was companies issuing a sustainability report -- something that is still considered pitchworthy by some PR types, even though sustainability reporting has become commonplace. After that, it was companies boasting about switching to recycled or reduced packaging, or having a LEED-certified building, or setting a greenhouse gas reduction goal. In all but extreme cases, these are non-stories, part of what's considered business as usual -- barely more newsworthy than a company filing its taxes on time.

Today's non-stories are about zero-waste factories, energy-efficiency building upgrades, and supplier surveys or questionnaires. So many companies are doing these things that it is rare that any one of them is considered "news."

The growing body of non-news is good news for businesses, consumers, and the planet, if not for PR professionals. Yesterday's leadership initiative is today's societal expectation. Last decade's cutting-edge practice is today's standard operating procedure. Bold, audacious sustainability goals of the past are now considered business as usual.

Of course, a lack of newsworthiness shouldn't mean that these things aren't worth doing. They are, but for sound business reasons, not for scoring PR points. Companies create green buildings because they are more cost-effective and better places to work, with higher productivity and occupant satisfaction. They make energy upgrades because they save money and improve operations. They report on their sustainability performance because customers and investors demand it. They set greenhouse gas reduction goals because doing so can reduce long-term risk.

All of which begs the intriguing question: What will be newsworthy in 2012? What corporate commitment or achievement during the year will capture the public's imagination, set a new standard, or even disrupt markets? And what activities will become no longer newsworthy -- things so commonplace that a press release, PR pitch, or executive speech about them will cause our collective eyes to roll?

As journalists and analysts of the sustainable business scene, these are the questions that make our juices flow, that motivate us to separate the newsworthy stories from the rest -- a never-ending quest for the new, new thing.

Newspaper and landscape photos via Shutterstock.