Sustainability is a Complex Idea

spider web wet with dew

Photo by Michael Podger via Unsplash.

I just got back from the GreenBiz conference in Phoenix, “The premier annual event for sustainable business leaders.” A few people have asked why I went. After all, most of my business comes from healthcare and tech. What does green business have to do with anything?

As you know from this website, my business is about clarifying complex ideas. Many of my clients struggle with telling their sustainability stories. These are complex topics that are typically outside their areas of expertise. And when complex stuff comes up, I get the call.

What did I learn at GreenBiz?

I went to GreenBiz to learn from others. I wanted to find best practices in communications. I needed to see what the best of the best were doing. And after three days of sessions, meals, and meetups, it’s obvious: this is an emerging market with no clear best practices.

As one GreenBiz attendee said to me: “This s*** is hard, y’all.”

Many means of communication

It’s especially hard because there are so many avenues of communication. In my opinion, there are five primary fronts to sustainability communications:

  • Policies. Corporate policies guide internal behaviors and set expectations for the supply chain. But these policies are largely written by lawyers. They’re long, dense, and often unclear, even to a native English speaker. Now you hand these guidelines to someone for whom English is a second language. How much is understood? You can’t implement what you don’t understand.
  • Reporting. Sure, there are formal reports with data and graphs noting milestones and metrics. But what’s the story behind the numbers? Why did your company choose those targets? What are the challenges with meeting those targets? Be honest about what you can and can’t achieve with the technology and resources available today.
  • Internal communications. How much do your employees know about your sustainability efforts? Is it part of the onboarding process? Does it affect their day-to-day lives? Engaging employees can help to drive innovation to meet your goals.
  • Customer communications. Who wants to support companies that take advantage of people or the environment? Sustainability is important for B2B and B2C companies alike. Studies show that we increasingly put our wallets where our values are.
  • Shareholder communications. How do you stack up against your peers? Reporting on social, environmental, and economic efforts makes your company more attractive to shareholders. Companies that are more deeply engaged in sustainability programs are more likely to be protected against long-term threats to their business.

Where do we go from here?

This year is the tipping point. Broad-themed sustainability — as outlined by the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals — has shifted from a value-added concept and become the way business should be done. It’s important for your company to tell a compelling, engaging story that sets you apart from the crowd.

How is your company handling sustainability communications? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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