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Best Practices in Communicating about Sustainability

While sustainability initiatives have boomed in recent years, many companies are still seeking help in developing strategy and others are struggling with communication efforts. I’d like to offer some clarity and share best practices regarding sustainability as it relates to paper and allied industries.

Companies that follow such best practices have proven themselves to be committed to incorporating the principles of sustainable development into their everyday business practices, as well as actively managing and measuring performance. The obvious next step is to embark upon a journey to proactively communicate their efforts and results to key stakeholders:  customers, employees and the communities where they do business.

We offer the following set of basic guidelines for those that are initiating programs:

–Step 1: Acknowledge the issues (do your homework)

–Step 2: Position your organization (have an opinion)

–Step 3: State your policies (express your opinion)

–Step 4: Set goals and measure your performance (get better)

–Step 5: Communicate without fear (be transparent)

To stay current and effective, organizations should reevaluate their goals, policies and practices along the way.  For example, at Sappi we developed five year goals in 2008 based on a benchmark performance of 2007.  In our 2011 Sustainability Report (downloadable here) we show that we are on track to meet or exceed all but one of our goals ahead of schedule. Looking at past years and benchmarking our progress helped us established an additional set of five year goals for 2012 and moving forward.

But companies’ communications about sustainability can go well beyond their yearly sustainability report. Communications platforms can be multi-faceted to include elements in print (such as our eQ Journal and On-Product Environmental Label Guide) as well as online (we have an extensive sustainability section on our website).  Companies can also keep customers informed of their progress through meetings and email communications, and by routinely training individuals on the sales force to help them understand key issues related to the industry and the company’s overall performance performance.

Perhaps the most important element in an overall communications plan is being committed to providing information about sustainability which is grounded in solid science. That way, companies offer a fact-based communications approach that delivers proof rather than empty promises.

Laura M. Thompson, Phd, is director of sustainable development and technical marketing at Sappi Fine Paper North America. She has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of New Hampshire and an M.S. and PhD in Paper Science from the Institute of Paper Science and Technology.  Since 1995, she has held a variety of positions within the paper industry including R&D, mill environmental, product development for specialties and coated fine paper, and, most recently, sustainability.  Since joining Sappi in 2006, Laura has quickly emerged as an industry leader in the field of sustainable development. This is reposted from The Environmental Quotient with permission from Sappi Fine Paper North America.  For more information, please visit Sappi’s eQ Microsite.  You can also follow @eQLauraThompson on Twitter.

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One thought on “Best Practices in Communicating about Sustainability

  1. All really good points. For some reason, a lot of manufacturers (especially smaller ones) often forget that environmental/sustainability management practices make great PR material and give a competitive advantage, even in the B2B sector. Kudos for insisting on fact-based, data supported communications – we’re seeing “green-washing” become a real problem.

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