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Speaking Sustainably

How collaboration inspires sustainability heroes

Global results need collaboration, trust and communication. Just ask companies such as Apple and NGOs such as the EDF.

We’ve all read the "we’re a nation divided" rhetoric. And, fair enough, it can feel like the majority of us here in the U.S. are more and more walled off in our respective bubbles  and when we bump up against an opposing perspective, we just bounce off and keep going our separate ways.

Thankfully, some of the world’s largest companies and big environmental NGOs — traditionally perceived to be at odds with each other — are showing the rest of us how to step out of our bubbles, onto common ground, and collaborate. The fruits of this approach are evident in the collaborations between Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Walmart, World Wildlife Fund and key commodity producers, Ocean Conservancy and members of the Trash Free Seas Alliance.

In all of these examples, we see that results at a global scale don’t happen without collaboration, collaboration doesn’t happen without trust and trust doesn’t grow without good communication.

This is a story about how EDF is communicating to build trust and collaboration. Quick background: EDF has been working with large businesses for more than two decades to make significant positive impacts on the environment. They have a track record of success grounded in both science and economics — and they traditionally have positioned themselves as the experts, focusing communications on how they could accomplish results.

In the wake of a new U.S. administration intent on dialing back environmental commitments, culminating in the U.S. pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, EDF determined that its collaborative approach with business would be the key to protecting the environment in the absence of government leadership. It needed to inspire business leaders to take the reins, and it knew touting its own leadership wasn’t the formula for success.

In fact, the most successful brand stories of the past few years position the brand not as the star, but as the helper, the enabler, the mentor, that allows the customer to do something great.

(A couple of good examples: Apple’s Shot on iPhone campaign highlights iPhone-owning photographers from around the world as the heroes enabled by Apple’s product, and REI’s Force of Nature initiative positions the brand as a supporter of people who are making "gender equity in the outdoors" a reality.)

Following this approach, we’ve worked with EDF to create and launch a campaign challenging and inspiring business leaders to "lead from the front."

If you’re an NGO, what can you take away from this?

  • Steer away from messaging that emphasizes companies’ obligations to humanity or responsibility to protect the planet.
  • Instead, talk about the opportunity and leadership potential that sustainable efforts create for business.
  • Don’t paint yourself as the hero — help businesses see themselves in the role of the hero, the leader in their industry who will build a memorable legacy and a responsibly prosperous future.
  • Your actions — the guidance and resources you provide companies — will speak louder than words when it comes to building your reputation as a leader or an expert.

And if you’re the sustainability officer at your company? You can use the same strategies internally to make your case. Think about how you or your department can be the mentor that guides other officers or departments to hero status. And remember that hero status will look different for different people: the C-suite wants to see how sustainability opens the door for new corporate leadership opportunities and how it builds a positive legacy; someone in a more managerial role (say, an energy manager or HR manager) will be the hero for other reasons, such as saving the company money, attracting top talent or helping the company meet stated goals.

Whatever your role, finding the common ground is an important starting point for building trust and starting collaboration. Making your audience the hero and inspiring them to lead is a great way to do that.

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Shelton Group

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