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From buzzwords to business strategy: Making sustainability speak to stakeholders

Sustainable button pins for a corporate event
Conversation triggers: Button pins with sustainability role typology

Last week I had the pleasure of seeing a corporate sustainability event in Belgium come to life that I accompanied as a content and format consultant. In fact, it was two events that took place on two subsequent days - a hybrid event for the global company's workforce and an in-person summit for customers and partners along the value chain. Both events went well and got positive feedback, especially the many interactions and playful elements (more on 'playfulness' in an upcoming blog post).

 

To frame my message I need to mention that this industrial group of companies has a management team dedicated to transforming its business, in recent years they implemented a compelling purpose, a clear sustainability strategy, and a team, and put up some valuable campaigns.

Still, by designing this project we faced a few typical issues that I also met in other companies across industries:

  1. There isn't this 'one thing' called sustainability. The broader the audience, the more difficult is it to build on the same level of knowledge and initiate valuable conversations. When addressing the topic it is helpful to understand which background to build on with the target group and to properly manage their expectations. Advanced corporations meanwhile integrate sustainability across all businesses and corporate management, rather than isolating sustainability experts to write strategies and reports. But this means that discussions on sustainability even internally may encompass a wide range of topics, including elaborated technical innovations, DEI in HR, as well as taxonomy specifics in Finance. Hence to achieve communication goals when organizing an event with internal or external stakeholders, it is crucial to thoughtfully design and clearly communicate its purpose, format, and expectations in advance.
  2. Differentiation between individual, corporate, and societal levels of the sustainability conversation. To live happily and healthily in harmony with nature is a universal desire and most of us aim to behave as responsibly as possible in our private lives. Unfortunately, for most businesses, being 'good' is not an easy feat. They have been built for profit and growth and acting sustainably, defining a reasonable footprint, and balancing 'giving' and 'taking' within diverse frameworks means a huge transformation for most of them. From my experience, it is helpful to first develop a coherent yet comprehensive narrative that allows stakeholders to identify their role in it and to find their areas of contribution.
  3. Enabling the step from commitment to effective action. This usually works best in a well-defined setting, with clear instructions, and concrete CTAs (calls to action). Agency-created campaign videos with emotional messages might grow inner engagement, but without adding activities or requests (e.g. to join an ambassador group or to send a visible sign of agreement) the impact is lost. The same applies to 'group work' at events, where open questions in a mixed audience most of the time lead to fluffy answers of 'we should...' and '...is needed'. Given the agreed urgency of the topic, why shy away from thought- and action-provoking forma

 

Based on these issues, for effective communication I favor tailormade modules, like movie series or art installations with calls to interaction, gamified activities, and other action learning elements over a 'one fits all' event or campaign.

Sure, sequenced and orchestrated measures require more resources and alignment but will pay off when aiming for tangible outcome and visible engagement of the various stakeholder groups.

Common grounds of facts

One of the underlying challenges of sustainability conversations - no matter whether in private or corporate environments - is the lack of an agreed referential ground.
When I would ask you right now to make three solid and fact-based statements e.g. about the state of the global 1.5 degrees target, the GHG emissions in Europe, or even the path to net-zero mobility in your hometown, I assume you face difficulties. We have tons of data available from science, but media, institutions, and politicians pick elements to create their own stories about the status and the way forward, using threat and hope as emotional levers, according to their targets.
That's why crafting industry or corporate narratives, as well as starting corporate conversations, is such a difficult thing. I am not a fact- and figure-driven person, but after working on sustainability communication projects in various industries I felt the need to investigate credible sources of information, identify accepted frameworks, and to start my own glossary (currently trying to enhance this with AI, will share findings and learnings asap :-)

That's why crafting industry or corporate narratives, as well as initiating corporate conversations, is such a difficult thing. I am not a fact- and figure-driven person, but after working on sustainability communication projects in various industries I felt the need to investigate credible sources of information, identify accepted frameworks, and to start my own glossary (currently trying to enhance this with AI, will share findings and learnings asap :-)

 

Starting on a global scale I found the SDGs a good starting point, that's why I recently subscribed to my first education online course by the SDG Academy via EdX. It will start in February and I am happy to keep you posted on how I get along with this self-paced learning method and if I find the high-level content helpful for corporate storytelling on the topic.

While working with a client from the petrochemicals industry, I got involved in communication measures around the Circular Economy, and I think for all industries affected the Ellen Macarthur Foundation is THE go-to institution for keynote speakers and up-to-date information. 

 

When talking about corporate climate change impact and action the Science Based Target initiative (SBTi) delivers not only a clear framework for target setting and tracking but also a lot of background data and insights.

To incorporate sustainability aspects beyond emissions, like freshwater, land use, and biodiversity the SBTN Science Based Targets Network was set up, and I find their newsletter pretty helpful to find my way through the jungle of regulations, institutions, and terms.

 

Graph symbolizes the ESG transparency idea
Graph: worldfavor.com

The new standards for ESG reporting in Europe aim to deliver more reliable and structured data and will probably also provide a valid foundation of narratives by allowing to better track success and - not to forget - to talk about shortcomings, too. Worldfavor, founded in 2016 and based in Stockholm, works with a transparency concept that connects companies to easily access and share comparable ESG information and promote sustainability. They provide studies and templates, which are pretty useful also for those not yet contributing to the platform.

Last but not least CSR-tools (in German language) founder Alex Spahn, has just begun to create a valuable knowledge and communication platform, I find his glossary very helpful and recommend the newsletter.

 

Balancing threat and hope, ambitions and real effects

A picture with a fish sculpture vomiting plastics garbage
Art installation 'Stop Marine Littering' for Borealis AG

But business is not all about figures, but about the humans, forming, owning, and controlling business organizations. Internal and external stakeholders across all functions and along the full value chain would like to know about and believe in sustainability narratives.
But looking into the media and news coverage, I am not sure whether the 'burning platform' or the 'we can still avoid the worst' narratives work well. As a communication designer, I believe in thought-provoking guerilla methods elements, and in bold messages - also in corporate communication.

 

When having sustainability activist and author Paul Gilding as a keynote speaker at a leadership conference, for example, we had a dystopian multimedia show while people entered the meeting room, preparing the audience for his part, ending with a motivational call to action (see 3. above).

The same balance is delivered by the Outrage + Optimism podcast of Christina Figueres and her co-hosts.

 

Question to all the communication professionals out there:

What is your recipe for effective measures when it comes to sustainability communication?

Is it okay to bring in extreme positions like Extinction Rebellion or Last Generation into the business environment?

Does nudging help? Happy to start the dialogue!

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