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5 ways to communicate sustainability beyond words

<p>Take a cue from Intel and Unilever: Go beyond mere words, and use video, social media and every other resource at your disposal.</p>

Gone are the days when we used only words to tell a great story. Today, especially when communicating sustainability, we rely more on the old saying “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

Please don’t get us wrong; words, statistics and data measurements are crucial to sharing a company’s focus on the triple-bottom-line, but we need to use more visual and compelling elements to truly portray a commitment to sustainability. That's the only way to break through. Furthermore, effectively communicating sustainability can be a key driver in positive organizational change. 

We live in a world where people are bombarded every day with new messages and up-to-date information. In fact, here are a few statistics supporting this phenomenon:

  • The average person gets one information interruption every eight minutes, or approximately seven an hour and 50-60 per day.
  • The average American is exposed to 247 commercial messages and 3,000 advertising messages each day.
  • Message vehicles vary from social media posts to text messages, emails, face-to-face interactions, radio commercials, online and in-print articles and advertisements, bus signage, billboards and even logos on buildings. 

In the midst of this chaos, we have found several ways to cut through the clutter and stand out — sustainability is too important not to communicate it effectively.  Based on our experience, here are a few important ideas to consider:

1. Communications that you can see, touch or even listen to provide a tangible measure of success. We often recommend a sustainably-printed executive summary to support the main, comprehensive, online corporate social responsibility (CSR) report. In addition, we have created website book covers, blast email series and e-newsletters to launch and promote a company’s approach to sustainability.   

2. Developing a brand/identity to represent and highlight your efforts in sustainability is very effective. This work can and should complement or align with the organization’s overall brand but still be different enough to compel target audiences to learn more or at least investigate further. A sustainable brand easily can become recognizable and well-known, further adding to the positive reputation of a company. This is good for recruitment and retention, employee engagement and customer loyalty.     

3. With reports especially, we try to create a memorable theme and title that ties closely with an organization’s core competencies. The more creative, the better. It can be a spin on the corporate name or a creative take on the corporate culture. A convincing theme and unforgettable title can go a long way, and can take sustainability communications to the next level. 

4. With a printed piece, many sustainable measures can be taken. And if those measures are followed, a certification logo can be added to collateral. For instance, here are a few of many well-known, attainable certifications that always should be taken into consideration:

 The FSC logo supports the responsible use of forest resources. The FSC Recycled logo certifies the 100 percent post-consumer content of a product. The FSC Mixed Sources logo certifies that a product comes from well-managed forests, controlled resources and recycled fiber.

This logo demonstrates that a product contains fiber that has been recuperated entirely from paper used by consumers through recycling programs. 

The Green-e logo certifies that a product was created with 100 percent green electricity. Green-e Energy is the nation's leading independent certification and verification program for renewable energy. 

This certification from the Chlorine Free Product Association ensures a product is manufactured with no chlorine.


5. Finally, it is a must to take advantage of the technology that exists today — the very technology that we mentioned is “taking over the world,” so to speak. You can’t beat it, so join it. There are so many different and exciting ways to “join” and be creative about it. Here are just a few:

  • Social media — Try photo tagging coworkers and other employees on Facebook with messages focused on sustainability (i.e. “Happy Earth Day,” “Celebrate Sustainability” and “Go Green”). And don’t just use hashtags, create them. TwitPics are popular now and so is creating applications that make learning about sustainability fun — it’s all about gaming. Also, don’t forget to link your online sustainability communications to your social media platforms, and your social media platforms to each other. HootSuite is a great tool to use for linking social media platforms together, and it allows you to schedule social media posts in advance to save time and ensure you are regularly communicating with stakeholders.
  • QR codes — Although these have been used outside of the U.S. for quite some time, creating and implementing a QR code is trending, and it’s a creative, environmentally responsible way to spread your sustainable messages and communications. Just be sure its mobile-optimized and placed and sized for easy access.
  • Online polls, surveys and contests … with rewards — These easy measurement tools not only provide great information to enhance your sustainability communications, they also make users feel like they are involved in something bigger. And who doesn’t like to win prizes?

A good example of a company using a variety of elements to communicate sustainability is Intel. The company's 2011 Corporate Responsibility Report boasts interactive features such as embedded video and pop-up facts when you click on them to provide readers with a robust experience of the company’s sustainability impacts. What’s even better is that Intel provides an explanation of the interactive elements so readers know what’s included in the report and how to use them in order to enjoy the full report experience.

Another good example is Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, because the company updates its progress on performance in real time and provide readers with the necessary social media tools to share this information. Stakeholders can visit Unilever’s website at any given time and access current information on environmental impacts and data, watch relevant videos and keep up on sustainability trends and news.

This is our take on the current state of sustainability communications and where they will trend in the future. It’s a combination of traditional and non-traditional communications and media that plays on the senses and is sensitive to the fact that people are consuming large quantities of information every day from many sources. By striking this balance, not only will you likely reach and engage a broader audience who is receptive to your message and will want to know more about your sustainability efforts going forward, but you also will have a greater opportunity to affect positive organization change within your business.

Image credit: CC license by cogdogblog/Flickr

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