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Know these three Vs of sustainability communication

Here's how Nike, McDonald's and Chipotle express their broader visions and engage with consumers on a grand scale.

You might be wondering why McDonald’s committed for 100 percent of the fish served in its U.S. and European restaurants to carry the Marine Stewardship Council ecolabel.

As you can imagine, it is no small task or expense to ensure traceability through to a fishery that meets MSC’s strict sustainability standards, especially for a huge volume of fish. Nevertheless, McDonald’s made the commitment and uses the ecolabel to tell consumers.  

McDonald’s use of the MSC ecolabel is part of a broad commitment to sustainable sourcing. The company’s sustainable sourcing story, in its totality, is an example of what I call the three Vs of effective sustainability communications: Value; Viewpoint; and Vehicle.

1. Value

To make a commitment to sustainability, a company must understand and believe in the value, or benefits, of sustainability for its business. Sustainability is a broad designation of corporate responsibility that includes positive impacts related to the three P’s — profits, planet and people. Some companies still view these as optional “nice-to-haves,” but these businesses are increasingly in the minority.

Sustainability and sustainable procurement, in particular, make strong business sense for every business. No company can afford to be tagged for deforestation (corresponding to 10 to 15 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions) or for water shortages and water contamination in communities where the company sources raw materials or manufactures its products.

When a company’s procurement practices (or those of its suppliers) degrade the land or water sources or exploit laborers, the company faces much bigger costs and concerns than getting its products to market. It faces loss of consumer trust, lost sales, damage to its brand and, of course, the costs incurred to respond to protests and restore brand reputation and sales, which might take years.

On the flip side, consumers, activists and investors increasingly reward companies that act ethically and actively manage social and environmental impacts — with better reputations, higher sales and consumer affinity and higher share prices.

So a company wins when it is known for sustainable sourcing, has a low carbon footprint and minimizes negative environmental impacts or even restores degraded lands, for example. The corporate benefits of sustainability extend beyond sales and reputation, also reducing corporate risks related to resource scarcity and boycotts from consumers and activists. 

2. Viewpoint

After a company realizes the value of sustainability, it needs to develop a specific viewpoint. Saying “our company is sustainable” puts a company in the “me too” group and nothing more. Even the term “organic” confuses consumers (according to the latest research from market intelligence firm Mintel Group), so imagine how confused consumers are by the term “sustainable,” as in “our products are sustainable.”

Sustainability is not a laundry list of check-the-box initiatives that apply across the board to businesses of all types and sizes. What does sustainability mean for your particular business? Think about some options: sustainability might be (mostly) about ensuring a reliable, long-term source of raw materials; supporting the livelihood of farmers or apparel workers; complying with product labeling laws; obtaining certification from an independent third-party, such as MSC; or all of the above.

The sustainability point of view that you choose must be authentic and sharable. Take a look at some sustainability stories being told. Nike’s story is a global vision (a “better world”) with sustainable product stories illustrated by the “Making of Making” campaign that brings to life the Nike Materials Sustainability Index.

Chipotle’s story also paints a global vision (“cultivating a better world”) but is rooted in a supply chain story (“food with integrity”) about how ingredients are produced and prepared. Unilever’s story is the most comprehensive — a holistic sustainability vision (“sustainable living plan”) that acknowledges and includes all environmental and social impacts of its business. In each case, the company has a distinct viewpoint on sustainability that is sharable.

3. Vehicle

The final step for effective sustainability communications is to select the appropriate vehicle, or method, for delivering the sustainability viewpoint. A company must engage consumers repeatedly with understandable, truthful messages that create conversation. Messaging should include many touch points to help consumers truly see and believe that the company is responsible and trustworthy on sustainability.

If a company’s products are third-party certified for sustainability, as is the case with McDonald’s fish products, consumers should hear this. However, a company should not rely exclusively on certification and related ecolabels as the vehicle to talk about sustainability. Third-party certification becomes back-up support, with consumers still needing to hear the company’s “why” — why sustainability matters to the company and to all that is affected by the company and its products.

When sustainability issues are technical and complex, as is the case for most industries, messaging is particularly challenging. A few years ago, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (now Keurig Green Mountain) realized that the majority of American consumers did not understand the abstract term “fair trade” (despite use of the Fair Trade Certified label on the Green Mountain Coffee brand) and could not easily see the connection between sustainability and the purchase drivers of coffee (taste and quality).

To make fair trade a sharable and engaging story, the company launched a dynamic campaign that showcased its coffee as being “[b]etter quality coffee for you; better quality life for farmers.” This was language that consumers could understand and, therefore, successfully animated the fair trade product certification and the company’s overall viewpoint on sustainability. 

To create trust, the conversation must extend beyond consumers to all relevant stakeholders, including employees or recruits, investors and environmental groups. The messaging for these other audiences might include different vehicles (such as a formal sustainability report), but the company’s underlying sustainability viewpoint should be apparent throughout. 

Above all, in every communication vehicle, be open (buzz word “transparent”) and tell all of the facts, including the unknowns. Telling an incomplete story or an ambiguous story only breeds confusion and mistrust, leaving openings for competitors, activists and investigative media to fill in and clarify the gaps. 

Cover all of your bases by remembering the three Vs of sustainability communications: Understand the value of sustainability, develop an authentic and sharable viewpoint on sustainability, and choose an effective vehicle to communicate it.

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