Two Steps Forward

Success in sustainability combines these 3 ingredients

Adapted from GreenBuzz, a weekly newsletter published Mondays.

Commit. Collaborate. Communicate.

That seems to be the mantra these days when it comes to tackling the complexity of sustainability challenges. Whether the topic is carbon removal, renewable energy procurement, transforming supply chains or creating a circular economy, inevitably the road to success is paved with these three ingredients.

You can see that in our coverage Monday of the more than 275 companies and other organizations that have aligned around a set of commitments aimed at curbing plastic waste. The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, organized by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and U.N. Environment, sets forth a set of broad targets, including eliminating problematic and unnecessary plastic packaging, increasing reusable packaging and making all plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable.

It’s a bold and audacious set of commitments, and the global brands included among the signatories — Coca-Cola, Danone, Diageo, Unilever, Mars, Nestlé, Philips, SC Johnson and others — aren’t likely to see this as a cavalier, check-the-box P.R. exercise. Indeed, these companies are all but screaming, "Judge us on what we do, not what we say we’ll do."

Most if not all of them are already on a path to deliver on such promises, but it will take a great deal more hard work to make good on them — maybe more work than some of these companies fully appreciate. It will require collaborating with their entire value chain — or is it now a value loop? — and communicating openly and authentically how well they’re doing in achieving their targets.

We’re seeing this three-legged stool — commit-collaborate-communicate — throughout the sustainability profession and the emerging clean economy.

We saw it in spades at our recent VERGE conference: cities pulling together to become "smart" and sustainable; big companies collaborating to electrify their fleets; companies partnering to scale up renewable energy purchases; companies looking externally for partners to help build new circular models for products and materials; companies working together to create new value propositions around removing carbon from the atmosphere.

All of these require new ecosystems of partners and collaborators, whether suppliers, customers, communities or others. And all require commitments and communications.

None of the Sustainable Development Goals can be achieved without these three ingredients. Or the Paris Agreement on climate change. Or pretty much any other global, sectoral or multisectoral goals or commitments.

It’s probably the last of the Cs — communicate — that will be most challenging for companies. In general, companies do not tell their stories well. That makes sense given the history of sustainable business.

Time was that being humble and modest about one’s environmental achievements and progress was seen as an asset, a means of minimizing reputational risk from being seen as taking only partial measures to solve complex challenges. Better to do your thing, the thinking went, than to promote yourself and gain unwanted attention that could turn your good deeds into a liability. And maybe, if things worked well, activists or the media would "catch us being good."

It was a dubious strategy then, and it’s an even worse one now. These days, transparency rules. You can’t get by saying, "Trust us. We’re working on it."

But how to tell stories that are about progress, but not perfection? How do you communicate to customers and others, "We’re doing less bad than we used to"? After all, most of these initiatives — eliminating plastic waste, reducing the use of polluting energy sources and so on — are about reducing problems, not necessarily about creating new sources of value. Doing-less-bad stories are tough to tell.

But communications in general, and storytelling in particular, are essential. A great deal of business success, after all, stems from storytelling — the stories we tell our employees, our customers and our various business partners and stakeholders. And the stories we tell ourselves about our purpose as individuals and organizations — why we do what we do. Storytelling takes place not just in a marketing and advertising sense, but in fundamental ways — a company’s culture and communications style, its vision and values, the promise that it makes to the marketplace, the way it motivates and rewards employees.

When it comes to environment and sustainability, the role of storytelling takes on even greater importance. Think about the topic. On the one hand, it involves scientific complexity about which even the experts don’t agree. On the other hand, it’s about our bodies, families, communities and future. In other words, it involves both head and heart. Clearly, a company’s messages can’t go too far in either direction — too much "head" will lose people and seem cold and calculated, whereas too much "heart" will come across as touchy-feely, without regard for "the facts."

Storytelling is a powerful tool for integrating the two: head and heart; intellect and emotion; facts and feelings. It helps to make companies more human and is the first step toward transparency. Storytelling is simply the best way we know to spread an idea effectively.

Of course, stories without substance is a losing proposition. That circles back to commitment and collaboration. They provide the backbone for most of the best stories on corporate sustainability. And while each can stand on its own, they’re far more powerful in combination.

Learn to put the three together and you’re well on your way to becoming a leader.