Why Well-Planned Sustainability Communications Matters
Dr. Thomas Schröder | Dec 29th 2016

By choosing to embrace climate change as an opportunity, bold and progressive corporates around the globe are future-proofing their business models and establishing themselves as leaders. But much like in business, success in communicating corporate climate action does not happen by chance: only well-planned sustainability communications can unearth stories of shared value and inspire others to take action – and ultimately serve as the tipping point for business success.

The Paris Agreement entered into force in November 2016, only a few days before Donald Trump was elected President of the United States of America. While the latter certainly put a damper on the enthusiasm regarding the world’s first global climate agreement, it is interesting to note that the accord reached in 2015 in the City of Lights is only the tip of the iceberg: the climate deal represents the political acknowledgement of a reality that businesses have known for a long time – climate change is real.

Viewing climate change not as a threat but as an opportunity offers agile companies the chance to outrun their competitors: by choosing to embrace change, bold and progressive corporates around the world are future-proofing their business models and establishing themselves as leaders for a global cause. Together, they have formed various alliances and initiatives, joined pledges and piled pressure on governments that could no longer be ignored. The Paris Agreement is in part an expression from the private sector, assuming its role in society that goes beyond merely focusing on profits for shareholders. For many companies, joining the WeMeanBusiness coalition, the RE100 initiative, or disclosing their water and forestry management practices to CDP means following up on their corporate sustainability strategy and efforts to create shared value. At successful businesses, corporate sustainability & shared value creation are seen as core components of the company’s overall strategy, instead of externalities.

 

Despite embracing sustainability, businesses often fail to communicate this purpose-driven commitment to key stakeholders. Over the past years, we’ve noticed that in many cases there is a strong disconnect between climate action, sustainability departments and corporate communications & marketing. While companies might excel in communicating their supremacy over competition and the benefit of their products and services to clients, they fail to realise that tying their sustainability strategy & initiatives into their core offering can create a competitive edge:

By publicly and credibly establishing a link between what the company does in terms of sustainability and how this improves its core offering, a business can transparently show that a commitment to fight against climate change isn’t just ‘lip service’, but rather something that is inherent to the company’s value proposition. Today’s consumers, many of them millennials, want to believe in what they purchase. The only way to gain and maintain their support is by demonstrating how certain sustainability measures enhance the quality of a product or service. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), key to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, present a prime opportunity for companies to capitalise on the sustainability megatrend by calibrating their business objectives in a way that they consider or, even better, incorporate, an active contribution to one or more of these goals. This ensures that they are not only doing something meaningful, but also contributing to goals far greater than their business objectives. Aligning with the framework set by the SDGs has clear shared value benefits, but it also allows companies to tap into an increasingly attractive stream of SDG- and sustainability-related communications where they can tell their story and position themselves as frontrunners of this initiative.

 

The journey towards more sustainable and profitable operations requires more than merely a transactional approach. The ways to improve a company’s operations and realise untapped sustainability potential is unique to every company and every industry.

To provide just a few examples of such varying approaches, many global leaders in the consumer goods industry are seeking for ways to understand and address the risk of having their global supply chains exposed to climate change – be it through disruptive water shortages or deforestation. Progressive fund managers and other asset owners want to understand how carbon intensive their holdings are. Some of our large, multinational clients work very hard to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions related to Scopes 1, 2 and 3, in a concerted effort over a number of years.  Seeking climate neutrality accreditation, improving supply chain sustainability, and acting on minimising climate risk in an investment portfolio will all require a different set of tools – but also a very different approach to communicating impact.

 

Regardless of the business, successfully tying in sustainability communications with corporate goals starts with understanding key stakeholders and their needs. This is a step that allows space for business units, sustainability departments and corporate communications to come together to align on successful communications strategies – either by their own accord or with the support of a professional facilitator. Working within the framework of the SDGs will ensure the global relevance of the outreach and facilitate stakeholder engagement around topics that each of us can relate to. Coop Switzerland’s approach is but one great example of how SDG-aligned communications helps to both show the relevance of the company’s work in a global context and engage audiences with captivating storytelling:

Communications success, much like business success, doesn’t happen by chance. It needs to be carefully planned. When orchestrating a sustainability strategy, companies should be mindful of the various way in which it can add value – from a business, shared value and communications perspective: a robust, integrated sustainability strategy can make operations more efficient and save money; it can reduce exposure to climate risks, such as floods and droughts; it can act as an invaluable platform for stories that matter and for real engagement with stakeholders that matter.

An integrated sustainability strategy is the backbone for corporate action and decision-making. But it is only through well-planned sustainability communications that businesses can truly unearth their stories on shared value creation and inspire others to take action – and ultimately create a tipping point for long-term business success.


This post was co-written by Thomas Schroder and Nadia Kahkonen

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