Leveraging Sustainability in the Right Way

By Laura Joly on August 7, 2023

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A lightbulb with a plant growing in it sits in dirt in a forest.

Climate change is an urgent issue that needs action from individuals and businesses. While many companies acknowledge the importance of addressing environmental concerns, they often face challenges in fully embracing sustainability. This article explores the complexities companies encounter in adopting sustainable practices while shedding light on the role of public relations (PR) in shaping sustainability narratives. 

It’s not that companies want to ignore climate change; the potential trade-offs between sustainability and profitability pose a challenge. Environmentally conscious business practices may only sometimes lead to increased sales, making companies reluctant to commit to sustainability fully. As sustainability holds significant value for consumers and stakeholders, they may resort to shaping sustainability narratives without walking the talk. As a result, companies with sustainable practices enjoy an advantage in the market, as consumers and stakeholders prioritize environmentally responsible organizations.

However, concerns linger about the genuineness of sustainability-focused PR campaigns. There are valid concerns that sustainability campaigns are profit-making strategies needing more substantial commitment to addressing environmental challenges. 

The Role of PR in Shaping Sustainability Narratives

As scientific evidence of climate change collides with corporate interests, PR firms and communication professionals are instrumental in establishing a consensus on the role of corporations in environmental problems. Their goal has been to foster soft commitments to sustainability without succumbing to strict environmental regulations. What sustainability campaigns project is a message about the link between personal accountability and environmental health that is, in turn, making consumers more conscious and looking for “sustainable” products rather than sustainable companies.

Sustainability campaigns have led to misinformation and mistrust among consumers. Greenwashing is one such issue where companies portray themselves as more sustainable than they are. Overselling is another form of greenwashing, marketing products with small sustainability advantages while ignoring other unsustainable aspects. Greenwashing occurs when companies remain silent about their still environmentally damaging portfolio, misleading consumers. Additionally, fuzzy claims refer to marketing products as sustainable without providing any evidence to support such claims. 

While consumer interest in sustainability is increasing, one side effect of PR sustainability campaigns has been to have created negative associations with sustainability in the public’s mind. The public may associate sustainability with certain stereotypes or compromises in product functionality. For example, campaigns with the word “recycled” have faced consumer perception challenges. While some consumers appreciate the sustainability aspect of recycled products, others perceive them as lower quality. The fact that other consumers have used recycled materials can evoke contamination concerns. Another example is in packaging; governments are increasingly encouraging companies to reduce packaging, but less packaging can negatively affect the brand image, causing a dilemma for companies; they might also label those who buy sustainable products as “hippie” or “feminine,” impacting their purchase behaviour. 

A paper bag with the green recycling symbol is surrounded by recyclable and biodegradable products.

Crafting Effective Sustainability Communications 

The language used in sustainability campaigns is crucial to foster genuine engagement and understanding. It influences consumer perceptions and shapes attitudes toward sustainable products and companies. Carefully crafting language can facilitate or obstruct urgent actions toward addressing climate change. Therefore any effort made to communicate about sustainability should: 

  1. Communicate truthfully and comprehensively: Provide accurate and comprehensive information about sustainability initiatives, avoiding exaggeration or withholding essential details.
  2. Tell the truth: Transparency is key. Communicate openly about the challenges, progress, and setbacks in sustainability efforts.
  3. You can communicate your sustainability ambitions, not necessarily your results: While it’s essential to set ambitious sustainability goals, communicate them as aspirations rather than concrete achievements until they are realized.
  4. Communicate clearly to avoid misrepresentation: Use straightforward language, avoiding jargon or ambiguous terms that may confuse or mislead the audience.
  5. Use straightforward language: Keep the message clear and accessible to various audiences. Avoid overly technical or complex language.
  6. Communicate specifically and measurably: Provide concrete and measurable information about sustainability initiatives, using data and metrics to illustrate progress.
  7. Be fair and avoid misleading images: Present information and visuals honestly and fairly, avoiding any manipulation that could mislead the audience.
  8. Use established frameworks to back up claims: Support sustainability claims with recognized and credible frameworks, certifications, or industry standards.
  9. Only communicate the sustainability initiatives you have data to back up: Share proven results supported by reliable data and evidence.
  10. Always double-check the claims: Ensure accuracy in all communications related to sustainability. Verify data and claims before sharing them with stakeholders.

Efforts should also be made to avoid ambiguous concepts such as “Green,” “natural,” “Environmentally friendly,” and “sustainable” when describing products. These vague terms can confuse consumers and undermine their trust in sustainability initiatives. Defining clear and universally accepted standards for “good” sustainability can also aid in effective communication.

Achieving sustainability is a journey that requires concerted efforts from companies, stakeholders, and PR and communication professionals. By crafting truthful communications, negative associations with sustainability will decrease, and organizations can embrace environmentally responsible practices without compromising profitability. Strong sustainability communications will lead to authentic sustainability efforts contributing to a healthier planet and a more substantial brand reputation.

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