Digital pebbles

Clarke Mulder Purdie on PR, media and other random topics

Communicating sustainability: what really matters to your customers, and why you should care?

Posted by Helen on October 10, 2008

From Maja Zupan, Associate Director, Clarke Mulder Purdie…

For the past year or so, one could not open the morning paper or log onto a news site without half a dozen headlines jumping off the page announcing newly crafted sustainability policies by this or that organisation. However, after initial praise for the green pioneers, the media became more difficult to please, criticising many a corporate policy as skin deep. This, in turn, has led some organisations to conclude they were better off not doing anything at all.

At a time when the economic downturn is placing new pressures on organisations, and the media appetite for corporate sustainability stories is seemingly waning, are these organisations onto something? Should companies put their sustainability policies on a shelf and get on with business? While tempting, such thinking is fundamentally flawed.

The climate change and economic sustainability of production (just think of biofuels!) remain very real problems that many consumers take very seriously. Not only are more and more people beginning to make changes in their own lives – be it by turning off the switches at home, recycling, reusing or opting for public transport – they are increasingly factoring in corporate sustainability practices when making purchasing decisions.

According to a recent European Commission survey of public opinion on climate change (Special Eurobarometer 300: ‘Europeans’ attitudes towards climate change’, September 2008), 62% of Europeans feel that “global warming / climate change” is among the most serious problems currently facing the world as a whole – second only to “poverty, the lack of food and drinking water” (68%); and above the concerns over international terrorism (53%), armed conflicts (38%), economic downturn (24%), or the spread of infectious disease (23%).

In addition, the majority of people in all European countries think that corporations and industry are not doing enough to fight climate change.

With the issue so high on the public agenda, consumers have also become better informed about what it means to be sustainable. So, while off-setting your company’s carbon footprint may seem like a viable company policy, standing alone, this practice runs the danger of coming across as a mere token gesture, and a sloppy one at that. While carbon footprint is important, measuring it accurately is rather complex, as factors that impact its size go well beyond transport or building insulation. A carbon footprint of a company’s supply chain, for example, can have a far greater impact on the environment than anything else the company does.

So how can companies ensure their sustainability practices are good news to all parties involved – the planet, the media, as well as the consumers?

Know your target audience: Who are your customers and where do they live? Are they mothers concerned about your labour track record and environmental impact on the local community, or are they business executives concerned about your company’s direct impact on their own supply chain? In addition to your customers, you should also take into account the concerns of your other stakeholders – employees, shareholders, policy makers, etc. Understanding their immediate priorities will help you communicate your messages in a way that will resonate with each audience and position your offering as an answer to their needs.

Know your competition: What are they saying about their own sustainability practices? In crafting your message, avoid the ‘me, too’ statements that are likely to make you look like you’re playing catch up to your competitors’ initiatives. Even if a number of your sustainability practices are likely to be implemented across the industry, think about how you can truly differentiate yourself in the eyes of your audiences.

Be accurate: What have you actually done to make your operations more sustainable? Exaggeration, no matter how qualified, can make you lose your stakeholders’ trust in a way that no retracting statement can amend.

Go beyond the standard: Saying you’ve met an industry standard is the same as saying your product has the legal right to be on the market. Complying with industry standards is a business necessity, not a competitive differentiator. On the other hand, there are a myriad of voluntary sustainability codes of practice set by various bodies – from a local chamber of commerce to international bodies such as CSR Europe. While choosing to follow these is highly commendable, the sheer volume of codes available makes it difficult to communicate the true value of adhering to them. No matter what code of sustainability practice you follow, make sure your communications focus on the direct impact of your actions, rather than the compliance itself.

Live what you preach: Everything you say about your sustainability practices must be a part of your organisation’s DNA. Unless everyone in your organisation understands and adheres to the standards set on paper, your sustainability policies are unlikely to translate into consistent and impeccable daily practices. Make sure everyone in your organisation understands what it is you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how they can help realise it.

Engage with your audiences: No matter how impressive your sustainability policy, securing media coverage is only one, most often short-term, way of getting the message across to your audiences. Seek opportunities to communicate what you’re doing by engaging with opinion formers, community leaders, as well as directly with your customers. There are many communication channels you can use to communicate your sustainability record to your various target audiences, including community events, customer forums, blogs, meetings, newsletters or product packs. Understanding where your target audiences get their information will help you determine the optimal mix of communication channels.

Understand the cultural context: If your organisation operates in more than one country, make sure that your sustainability practices are equally relevant to each. Furthermore, do your homework on cultural idiosyncrasies before attempting to communicate what it is you’re doing, to prevent your sustainability messages from getting lost in translation.

Keep it simple: No matter how complex your sustainability calculations are, make sure the outcomes you communicate are relevant and straightforward. Use of long-winded explanations and jargon is likely to leave your customers puzzled at best. At worst, it may cause them to be sceptical of your true intentions.


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