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Speaking Sustainably

A lame duck slam dunk

Sustainability and social purpose is an economic investment for brands, and we should identify it as such.

A month after Election Day and weeks to go before the new Congress is sworn in, the midterms are all over — except the shouting. That, it seems, is never-ending these days. But national unity does exist — it’s just waiting on a change in conversation.

Political engagement has exploded in recent years, spurred by polarizing elected officials and the accessibility afforded by social media. Voter turnout in the 2018 midterm elections shattered records — an estimated 115 million people cast ballots, the first time a midterm election exceeded 100 million votes. (For comparison, 83 million voted in 2014.)

In several districts, votes are still being counted. But what we do know is that come January, divided government will return, a fitting representation for our bitterly polarized nation. And until then, the lame-duck period is full of political land mines, where anything — any statement, action or decision — promises to provoke both praise and backlash from the fighting factions. Everybody is shouting, and no one is listening.

But wait. There’s a movement afoot ready-made for national consensus.

Just like voter engagement, 2018 found corporations increasingly active in civic life. From plastic straw bans and renewable energy goals to canceling discounts for the National Rifle Association to making advertisements with former NFL quarterback and political activist Colin Kaepernick, brands are taking public stands and overhauling business practices in response to social and environmental issues.

This seachange in corporate engagement holds the potential to unify or further divide us. Brands themselves hold the key; it’s all in how they — and we — talk about it.

People, on the whole, respond positively to the use of 'science' and 'conservation' as factors underpinning brands’ decisions.
The fact is that sustainability and social purpose is an economic investment for brands, and we should identify it as such. Americans increasingly view corporate sustainability and social responsibility in economic terms: Shelton Group found in 2018 that the vast majority of consumers want brands to make concrete, vocal commitments to social and environmental goals, and are more likely to patronize those companies over others for doing so.

Beyond the business of sustainability, the precise words emphasized matter, too. Research shows (PDF) that people, on the whole, respond positively to the use of "science" and "conservation" as factors underpinning brands’ decisions. Much more divisive are the terms "regulation" and "carbon footprint," which divide consumers along ideological lines.

When brands communicate the pro-business, economic interests of environmental responsibility and social activism, it brings not only consumers but elected officials from both parties to the table.

We saw this play out in real time in Georgia’s long-contested race for governor.

Earlier this year, Delta Airlines severed ties with the NRA following its response to the mass shooting at Stoneman-Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams supported the decision by Delta, whose headquarters in Atlanta make it the state’s largest private employer. Republican candidate and Secretary of State (and eventual victor) Brian Kemp did not, calling Delta "corporate cowards" and supporting a retaliatory measure to eliminate state tax breaks on fuel that save the airline more than $40 million a year.

Public opinion — and consumers  — sided with Delta, and the airline spoke at length about its economic impact on the state and the business calculations behind ending its NRA discount. Before long Kemp completely reversed his position, publicly praising Delta’s benefit to Georgia taxpayers and stating his support for reinstating the fuel tax breaks.

On the sustainability side, corporations from Facebook to Disney World are taking decisive action, committing to more sustainable business practices and 100 percent renewable energy goals. Disney’s vice president tied the theme park’s decision to build a giant solar facility to economic terms: "Our guests tell us the environment is important, so it’s a big deal for us." The massive solar park is estimated to help cut Disney’s greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2020. But by talking about this investment with a message that combines pro-business interests, environmental and scientific interests, and consumer demand, Disney galvanizes support from across the political spectrum.

As civic participation swells, it can feel as if America never has been more divided. But with the right messaging, brands can cut through the noise and remind all of us how sustainability and social activism can be a universal slam-dunk.

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