5 essential lessons in sustainability messaging
5 essential lessons in sustainability messaging
This article was originally published at BSR Insight.
Time flies when you’re working toward a sustainable future with some of the best in the field. As I mark my fifth anniversary leading communications for Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), I’ve taken a moment to thank my team for its impressive energy and skills, and to reflect on some key lessons in sustainability communications I’ve learned during this time.
1. It’s not just business, it’s personal
Five years ago, BSR had a minimal social media presence. Since then, we’ve ramped up significantly on Twitter and LinkedIn, added Instagram to the mix and more than doubled the volume of our blog posts each week.
Today, we encourage personal storytelling by our staff and followers across our social media platforms — as do so many companies working to build a more just and sustainable world. From tweets to Facebook videos, we’ve seen that sustainable business is both a personal and professional passion. (One impressive example: Everlane, a budding retail company committed to a fully transparent supply chain, has more than 200,000 Instagram followers alone.)
2. Good sustainability stories stand the test of time
More than 10 years have passed since Walmart took on the challenge of sustainability, working with EDF and others. Today, Walmart has a formidable commitment to global responsibility and remains a success story that media and others frequently cite when chronicling progress on this issue.
Similarly, Patagonia has a decades-long commitment to socially responsible and sustainable business and launched its Footprint Chronicles almost 10 years ago — as Patagonia notes, to "use transparency about our supply chain to help us reduce our adverse social and environmental impacts — and on an industrial scale."
With both of these examples, the success lies in the company’s bold ambition around sustainability, which set a high bar for others to match or exceed.
3. The crucial role of business in helping build an inclusive economy is a powerful message
In recent years, empowerment, diversity and inclusion have become key strategic business issues that have been supported by creative and effective communications campaigns and messages.
From the official launch of Lean In three years ago to Task Rabbit’s recent announcement of its commitment to African-American inclusion across all levels of the company, the concept of business support for an inclusive economy is growing in relevance and impact.
In addition, big players in philanthropy are committed to the business of inclusion, such as the Rockefeller Foundation on impact sourcing and the Ford Foundation on eradicating inequality. At BSR, we’ve seen incredible growth in the past several years in our HERproject work — a global program funded by companies and foundations that empowers women working in global supply chains through workplace programs on health, finance and women’s rights.
4. Today, sustainable business includes the mind, body and spirit
For years, messaging around business sustainability focused predominantly on ways in which companies were mitigating their environmental impacts. Today, consumers are asking companies to connect with them on many levels, including how their products and services can improve personal health and wellness.
Also, corporate wellness has been shown to be highly correlated with employee engagement rates — meaning that it pays in multiple ways to address health as a sustainability priority. While companies are still grappling with the complexities around their role in this area, the fact is that companies eager to lead on sustainability need to incorporate health and wellness into their other programs and priorities.
5. There is power in unity and collaboration
As messaging around business sustainability has soared, companies have struggled with how to ensure these messages are heard — or seen. (Incredibly, according to one report, 80 percent of all internet traffic will be video by 2019.)
At BSR, we’ve increased our focus in past years around our Collaborative Initiatives, which bring companies together to tackle big sustainability challenges. By highlighting the multiple companies engaged in these groups, we’ve seen messaging break through to many of our audiences. We’ve also seen strong communications success with the We Mean Business Coalition, of which BSR is a founding member, in the lead-up to and following the adoption of the Paris Agreement.
As many of us know, it can be tough working day in and out on enormous challenges such as climate change, wealth inequality and human rights. Sometimes just when we feel we’ve actually moved the needle, we’re jolted back to reality with some sort of crisis or development in the news.
Late last month, as BSR noted the three-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, many of us asked the same question we asked four years ago for our 20th anniversary: Has everything changed, or has nothing changed, as a result of our efforts in sustainability?
As I look back over the past several years, I can assert that a lot has in fact changed about how we communicate sustainability. We are messaging through new and multiple channels, on a variety of compelling topics, and in ways that resonate with our key audiences — businesses, consumers, policymakers and leaders in civil society. We’re also collaborating more effectively and sharing success stories more widely. As the prevalence of social media, video and personal content customization continues to rise in coming years, we’ll need to stay ahead of the curve.