The 3 Ps of an effective sustainability story

A backlit keyboard
ShutterstockSergey Niko

This story is sponsored by Quantis International.

Sustainability communications is experiencing a rebirth, a sort of renaissance driven by a newfound purpose. Sustainability managers are teamed up with internal communications and marketing teams and have sought out specific expertise in an effort to shed  once and for all  the image that these actions are greenwashing. This collaborative trifecta has borne a new era in meaningful sustainability storytelling. 

Everyone loves a good story. And if your organization has taken even the smallest steps to a more sustainable model, then you have a good story to tell as well. As a sustainability or communications professional, your job is to translate these sustainability efforts into good, honest stories that connect to different stakeholder groups. Stakeholders are hungry to understand this new frontier, which is sustainability. 

A credible, transparent story will align and engage both internal and external audiences. To be effective in this process, there is a winning combination  a trifecta  to follow called the 3 Ps:

1. Purpose

There’s a lot of buzz about "purpose" these days. But the power of this shift in organizational existentialism should not be taken lightly. A few years ago, the purpose of a company  its raison d’être  was often about doing more: selling more product and making more profit. This is no longer good enough for most of your consumers, employees, suppliers and investors. These stakeholders want to know that there is an inherent, objective good for the added value brought to society by the goods or services you supply. 

One good sustainability purpose statement can be a catalyst for driving change within your organization from the inside out. A well-defined purpose creates trust. It also will be an impetus for change in your organization. It answers the question, "Why should I be involved?" It also will keep teams on track to reach your sustainability objectives as you wade through myriad potential sustainability actions.

An embedded sustainability purpose also can keep you on track during controversy. Take Nespresso, for example, which is responding to debate over its "sustainability" due to the capsules. Yet, Nespresso is a great example of a company that has embedded a sustainable purpose into the DNA of every part of its business. The Nespresso purpose is linked to the Positive Cup campaign. Its goal is to deliver the best coffee with a positive impact on the environment. Sustainability is considered at every decision made about Nespresso so it works to reduce its impacts, which includes aluminum sourcing.

3 Ps from Quantis

Above all, having the sustainability purpose statement written down makes it real — and being real, authentic and meaningful is key to successful sustainability communications.

2. Proof

The bottom line is: You must walk the talk. Every credible sustainability communications must be supported by the facts. I would even go a little upstream and say that every sustainability goal must be defined based on environmental data about your company. No company would keep its doors open without financial data.

The same goes with environmental sustainability metrics. These metrics give sound evidence that will boost the credibility of your message to avoid stakeholder doubt and greenwashing claims. Most companies are doing some type of triple-bottom-line measurement. These numbers should not collect dust on a digital shelf. They have an interesting, fact-based story to tell about your sustainability journey.

AccorHotels, the world’s largest hotel operator and foodservice provider, gives us an example of transparent and confident communications. Through corporate footprinting and other environmental measurement initiatives, AccorHotels gathered proof that allowed it to be open about its achievements but also about its challenges. In its latest report, the hotelier clearly identified areas for improvement as well as developed innovative ways to communicate what it has done well and define its ambitions for the future.

3. Position

Once you’ve define your purpose and gathered your proof, it’s time to position your message according to your main stakeholder profiles. Positioning your message is the integral alignment between the facts and the perception about your sustainability initiatives. To crack the perception gap in order to properly position your messages, a materiality assessment is useful. A materiality assessment is a survey sent to various stakeholder groups that will identify and prioritize what sustainability or environmental topics and challenges are most important to them.

One story may not fit all. Employees and customers may be concerned about community and social actions while shareholders may be more anxious about what your organization is doing to secure water supply or certain commodity resources to ensure continued operations should there be a major drought in procurement or production areas.

HP and International Paper's ecoEfficient calculator
<p>HP and International Paper's ecoEfficient calculator.</p>

They key is to take your purpose and your proof and then to craft different messages and materials that connect and engage with your top stakeholder profiles. A good example would be HP/International Paper. It put online an ecoEfficient paper calculator that speaks to different types of people and show them, in an interactive way, how making good choices about paper can have big impacts.

Stakeholders understand that the sustainability challenges the world faces today are not easily solved, but one element is non-negotiable: transparency. It is also the thread that runs through the trifecta of purpose, proof and position.

Be authentic about the ultimate reason you are on this sustainability journey, be open with the facts and the metrics about your efforts and be honest in responding to your stakeholders questions about how you are tackling the challenges that are material to them. What both internal and external stakeholders want to understand in your communications is that you are being transparent about what you are doing, where your challenges are and what actions are being put into place to reach sustainable goals.