Why doesn't sustainability messaging work better?

ShutterstockR. Gino Santa Maria

I've been a sustainability strategist at Adobe since 2013, and one challenge I constantly run up against is: how do we frame messaging around genuine sustainability initiatives within our own business in a way that encourages others to adopt the same practices at home and in their communities? 

When I discuss it with my sustainability peers, it is clear we all struggle with this challenge.

The way it was

Way back when, the first Earth Day in 1970 brought environmental consciousness to a global audience. But, while the messaging about conservation, peace and global health attracted a wide audience, environmentalists often cynically were labeled hippies or tree-huggers, preventing the movement from becoming mainstream, even though their actions accomplished significant objectives (such as the founding of the EPA). 

Corporate America leveraged the movement’s popularity in creating language to promote an array of products, or even a public image, as "environmentally friendly." But the messaging had little to do with driving behavior change, either in their companies or with their customers. 

So-called "green messaging" was built around selling products, and reputations, with cleverly chosen words that rarely gave specific or clear indications of any environmental attributes at all.

Even worse, many times the effort and budget of a "green" campaign far exceeded an organization’s actual time, effort and money dedicated to responsible practices. Hence, greenwashing.

The new sustainability movement

Today, advocates for environmental change have moved away from driving a cultural movement with pollution-centric messages, and are trending toward a science-based sustainability movement. This new way of thinking focuses more on our behaviors, and whether they are sustainable in terms of social resiliency, public and individual health, third-world development, energy demands, production levels and the environment.

Big challenge to sustainability messaging

We’ve moved beyond messages of conserving and preserving the environment and are more concerned with turning back the dial on anthropogenic climate change. Meaningful action is focused on lowering CO2 emissions and, in turn, curtailing global temperatures, reducing extreme weather patterns and inhibiting diseases that proliferate as a result of even tiny environmental disruptions. 

And like those early days of the 1970s, many brands continue to jump into the sustainability movement — some have authentic stories to tell, others continue with the problems of the past. Unfortunately, the challenge falls on the consumer to differentiate the two.

The risk: diverting attention from the bigger issue of global sustainability — and (perhaps once again) breeding cynicism and distrust among consumers who have a heightened awareness of "greenwashing" by big business.

What can be done?

To be more effective at combating the negative consequences with messaging, we need more authentic representation of business in the movement. Air pollution, ocean acidification, lack of clean drinking water and subsequent species loss, economic disaster and other broader social implications should underpin marketing campaigns and product development strategies. 

It starts with brands acknowledging these impacts and incorporating them into their messaging. At Adobe, for instance, we know we can help our customers operate more sustainably through their use of our products, and we strive to serve as an operational role model for other businesses.

But as for all businesses, our effectiveness will depend on how well our sustainability messaging appeals to our stakeholders, inspiring them to join in our efforts to live and work more sustainably. 

A recent example of great sustainability messaging came during the last Super Bowl. Colgate ran an ad about water conservation while brushing your teeth. The focus? How much water is wasted during our daily routine. Colgate shows its concern about a practice that’s directly connected to its product, and encourages consumers to join the initiative.

On a more introspective level, enterprises should recognize that their employees want to embrace sustainable practices for their own health and well-being, to feel good about the company for which they work. What kind of benefits can we offer employees to help them live a more sustainable life?

In the end, it takes the leadership of trusted global brands to recognize the value of sustainability messaging that is authentic and substantiated. We should all continue to look closely at our business practices and seek more sustainable options, both in our operations and our products. Only then can we create messaging that clearly aligns with the genuine sustainable attributes we provide.