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Plan ‘Sustainability Communications,’ Not Green Marketing, for 2011

I hear from lots of companies that they don’t do much to promote their sustainability initiatives, citing either fear of being accused of greenwashing or the fact that they are doing it for the “right” reason, not for the publicity. PR firm Cohn & Wolfe has a great name for this: “green muting.”

This fear and shyness is becoming costly to companies. Increasingly, sustainability ratings from organizations like Newsweek, Climate Counts.org, and Greenpeace establish a company’s sustainability credentials, perhaps accurately, perhaps not. As a career marketing guy, the idea of someone else defining a key characteristic of my brand’s identity or corporate reputation makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

The fact that companies are conflicted about publicly discussing their sustainability programs is a sign that the usual tools – corporate philanthropy, social responsibility or sustainability reports, cause marketing and green marketing – have proven themselves inadequate.

So as companies lay the groundwork for their 2011 sustainability strategy, they need to embrace a new discipline I call “sustainability communications.”

What’s the difference?

First: Don’t market. Communicate.

Classic marketing and PR is a one-way stream of relentlessly positive messages about the company’s breakthrough accomplishments and products. CSR reports that take this approach are rightly criticized as being a glossy exercises in image-polishing. These messages certainly have an important place in a firm’s communication program – that place just isn’t in communicating sustainability programs.

Communication lays out the facts with a minimum of interpretation so that stakeholders can make their own judgments. It structures the presentation to make it easy for the reader to find relevant information. And it uses the language of everyday consumers, employees, and other mainstream audiences, minimizing the arcane language of the CSR reporting insiders.

Take a look at the sustainability website of Hanesbrands, Hanesgreen.com. They go beyond marketing their EcoSmart line of apparel to highlight the three core areas of their sustainability strategy – Energy & Carbon, Environmentally Responsible Manufacturing, and Products and Packaging. Each section is populated with a succinct but specific overview of the company’s activities, with the ability to drill down to simple but data-rich charts, tables and examples. The explanatory text avoids hype and platitudes with a matter of fact tone. The Core Metrics page is exactly what it says: numbers showing changes over the past three years with no embellishment.

Second: Tell the truth. Even if it hurts.

Authenticity and transparency are the buzzwords of this field, but a company is neither if all it talks about are its successes. No company has achieved sustainability, all struggle with some aspect and most come up short on their goals. Instead of trying to hide failure, admit it, describe what you’ve learned, and reset your goals. Companies fear disclosing bad news, but they should have greater fear of someone else revealing this information, making it look like a cover-up.

Starbucks’ Shared Planet initiative provides a great model. Click into their Goals & Progress  Report on recycling and each one of their three major initiatives is labeled “Needs Improvement.” They could have simply left the statement that they served 4.4 million more beverages in reusable cups, and it would have sounded pretty good. They wisely show that this still represents only 1.5% of all beverages they serve and they have a long way to go to achieve their 25% goal. If they didn’t disclose this themselves, surely some activist or NGO would point out the gap.

Finally: Don’t defend. Engage.

As we saw with the BP Deepwater Horizon accident, most corporations’ reactions to a crisis is to deny, downplay, and defend. And it rarely works out well. Instead of viewing criticism as a threat, companies need to learn that often these criticisms contain knowledge and information that can help them achieve their goals. Instead of locking critics out, firms should invite them in.

In a recent Guardian article, Professor Frank Figge attacked UK retailer Marks & Spencer’s goal of being the world’s most sustainable retailer as being impossible to validate, thus “fuzzy” and “premature.” Instead of launching a counter attack touting their well-regarded Plan A sustainability program, a spokesman for the company took the low key route: “We will set clear targets to track progress and we will be inviting our stakeholders to help us define what leadership in sustainability is.” The only response that could have been better would have been to invite Professor Figge to be one of those stakeholders.

Marketers, corporate communications managers, and PR professionals have valuable skills in conveying compelling messages to mass audiences. But they need to escape their instinct to be relentlessly positive. If they can’t, Chief Sustainability Officers will need to take control to protect their solid sustainability achievements with good sustainability communications.

Jim Nail is a Principal Analyst at Verdantix, the fastest-growing, independent, analyst firm focused on sustainable business strategies and market opportunities. Jim’s most recent report Green Quadrant: Sustainability Communications Agencies (US) grades the sustainability communications offerings of 18 PR firms and ad agencies. For more information visit: www.verdantix.com.

6 thoughts on “Plan ‘Sustainability Communications,’ Not Green Marketing, for 2011

  1. Jim — this was the best article I’ve read in this arena in months. In fact, I retweeted it, posted it on Facebook, and linked to it on LinkedIn. The more managing executives and marketers who read it, the better we’ll all be as professionals in the sustainable space.


  2. The three strategies – i.e. (1) communicate; (2) truth; (3) engage – are directly on point–especially in light of the emerging legal issues regarding intentional misrepresentation of company’s environmental claims. See “The Law of Green Buildings” for more information. Great book that supports this article.

  3. Many of our GGW members worry about putting their green credentials up front for all to see. This article has excellent advice; communicate, truth, engage. Brilliant! and I will be passing the link on in our member newsletter.

  4. Jim- Ironically, I found this article as I was looking through Environmental Leader’s “More Topics” list for content in the “sustainability communications” vain – but there really isn’t one. The closest category category I could find to was “green marketing,” which, as you suggest, is something entirely different.

    I like the argument and wholeheartedly support the sentiment.

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