If No One Knows About Your Sustainability Policy, Does It Really Exist?

woman holding a globe in her hand

Photo by Ben White, via Unsplash

When I first started working on sustainability communications with one of my clients, I admit that I wasn’t terribly enthused. My personal history with corporate sustainability initiatives wasn’t exactly inspiring. But I’ve been independent for more than a decade and don’t usually see the inner workings of my client companies. Surely there have been policy improvements over the years, right?

So, I took an informal poll of friends who work at organizations ranging from 1,000-70,000 employees to see what their companies were doing about sustainability.

  • “I think we have a solar roof.”
  • “There are maybe four different kinds of recycling cans in the cafeteria. They’re poorly marked, so no one knows what goes where.”
  • “The conference room motion-sensor lights turn off if you’re not moving around enough, which happens roughly every 10 minutes.”

Not terribly inspiring, but I figured that there must be more to the story. I asked some follow-up questions about climate action, or reducing inequalities, or any of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Only one person replied with anything other than a shrug. “We have a diversity policy,” she explained. “But that seems more related to covering their butts in case of harassment or discrimination, rather than bringing in people or partnerships with diverse ideas and approaches.”

The UN Sustainable Development Agenda is fairly straightforward at its heart: mobilizing efforts of governments, businesses, and society to improve lives and build a better world. But why are we not hearing about it?

It is possible that these American companies aren’t buying into the UN SDGs? This is probably partly true, given the current political climate. But as I did some research, I discovered that some of the companies did have sustainability policies in place. They simply weren’t communicating them effectively.

The Importance of Sustainability Communications

The “if a tree falls in the forest”* thought experiment seems to apply here. Commitment to sustainability can be heavily influenced by perception. If a company is loud and proud about its commitment to the UN SDGs, that puts pressure on its competitors to demonstrate a similar level of commitment. Conversely, if the same company isn’t communicating its efforts – to employees, customers, or investors – there’s no social pressure to improve conditions for people or the planet.

Clearly, there’s a huge opportunity here. I’m looking forward to doing more exploration in the area of sustainability communications in 2018 and beyond.

* For those who aren’t familiar with the full text: If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

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