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Consumers want to know: What does sustainability really mean?

Vague communications strategies simply don't cut it when it comes to sustainable business.

Leave it to pop star Justin Bieber to inject from romantic angst into a seemingly straightforward question: "What do you mean?"

The context is different, but the same fundamental question is often overlooked in the realm of sustainability; consumers are also confused when they see and hear corporate sustainability communications that are generic and uncompelling, or misleading and incomplete.

Simply put, consumer confusion means that businesses are not communicating effectively.

This obstacle can be broken down into what I call the "Three Vs" of sustainability communication. Businesses often understand the first V (value), but they struggle with applying the second and third Vs (viewpoint and vehicles).

With this in mind, here's some additional guidance on effective sustainability communications:

Developing a compelling sustainability viewpoint

Think of your viewpoint as an authentic statement of how sustainability relates to your specific business. It is your way to say why and how your business is acting responsibly.

Your viewpoint should:

  • Reduce barriers: Reduce consumer confusion around sustainability by describing positive values and impacts of buying your products
  • Create benefits: Create an emotional connection by helping consumers feel they are contributing to a better world and are part of a solution when they buy from your company

Try asking these key questions to hone your viewpoint:

  1. How is sustainability authentically important to your business?
  2. Is your sustainability viewpoint brief, understandable and compelling? Will consumers be able to remember and repeat it?
  3. Have you acknowledged and addressed the "hot button" sustainability issues in your industry?
  4. Does your sustainability viewpoint demonstrate confidence and commitment? Does it show that you are actively contributing to a sustainable future in measurable ways that differentiate your business from peer companies?

Choosing effective vehicles for your viewpoint

Your communication vehicles should engage consumers and others repeatedly with understandable, truthful messages that create conversation and build trust.

Companies that are good communicators succeed in bringing their sustainability viewpoint to life for their many stakeholders — through their websites, social media campaigns, byline placements in online and print media, speaking engagements, on-pack messaging, sustainability reports, partnerships with NGOs, appropriate ecolabels and employee volunteerism.

They highlight stories of all kinds, providing behind-the-scenes views of production of their products and/or the many people affected by their businesses.

Consumer confusion means that businesses are not communicating effectively.

Good corporate communicators also look for opportunities to repeat their sustainability messages over and over — to create and reinforce emotional connections with their brands and products.

They show more than they tell. Who wouldn’t prefer to watch engaging videos and use apps about Nike’s Materiality Sustainability Index, instead of reading the text of the company’s sourcing requirements? The videos and apps are also more memorable and invite conversation with the company, friends, family, etc.

Try asking these key questions to determine which vehicles are most applicable:

  1. Do your communication vehicles actually reduce consumer confusion on sustainability and inspire consumers to feel emotionally connected to your company and products? Are you telling memorable, sharable stories?
  2. Do your communication vehicles resonate with a broad set of stakeholders? Have you considered and engaged investors, employees, bloggers, NGOs and regulators?
  3. Do you have a strategy for ongoing, continuous engagement on your sustainability viewpoint? Are you inviting two-way conversation?
  4. Are the sustainability messages on your website and product labels readable, well-organized and aggressively edited to eliminate forgettable, unnecessary or vague text?
  5. Do you have a management approach for fulfilling your sustainability commitments? Are you prepared to explain any unknowns or shortfalls in your sustainability performance?

You know that sustainability is good — good for your business, good for people and good for the planet. So, tell people what you’re doing. Use the 3Vs framework to develop a compelling sustainability viewpoint and effective communication vehicles.

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