Do you make these sustainable communication mistakes?
Everybody has a sustainability story to tell.
Whether you’re a non-profit organization, corporation or individual, your environmental and social actions and agenda will be asked about and need to be communicated. For businesses especially, the stricter reporting requirements and sustainability complexities make communicating sustainability effectively and transparently even more of a challenge.
Sustainability itself is complex because it can mean a lot of different things and has many different audiences. As someone who’s worked with leaders at all stages of the sustainability journey, I’ve seen plenty of people with good intentions completely turn off their audiences when it comes to sustainability. And I see the same mistakes happen over and over, with others and with *pause for dramatic effect,* myself.
I’ve dedicated my career to communicating sustainability and I still make these mistakes and still catch myself defaulting to the wrong approach. It takes practice to get out of communication habits but I hope by curating these common mistakes, I can help others communicate better to create more effective, sustainable change in however you’re doing so.
1. Positioning sustainability as a burden over a value
If your sustainability communications often center on messages such as “we’re all in this together” or “this is a worldwide challenge and we all have to take action now to save the planet” or something along those lines, then you’re missing out on the opportunity to showcase environmentalism as the value it is today.
Sustainability and social equities save money in both the short and long term in countless ways. Sustainable initiatives often create more lean processes that reduce risk. Sustainability for brands means a better image and better relationships with stakeholders. Diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are linked to more innovation.
I can go on but the root of the matter is, sustainability isn’t just a burden that requires all hands on deck, it’s a method that can create value in countless other ways than to just “do the right thing” (which unfortunately isn’t a sole reason to do it for most).
Bonus Tip: Let’s not put the burden of “saving the earth” on individuals. It’s a handful of big corporations and governments who are making the most impact and by ignoring that in our communications, we can come off as tone deaf and privileged.
2. Starting your sustainability story with the doom and gloom
Related to the previous point, starting any copy around sustainability with the age-old mood killers about the planet being on fire doesn’t actually create the sense of urgency we think it does. It can turn people off. It immediately puts the audience in the mindset of overwhelm and anxiety. Instead, start with the solution, the opportunity, the good news. I’m not saying you need to sugarcoat the situation, but when it comes to sustainability and you have good news and bad news, starting with the good news is a good rule of thumb.
3. You don’t define what sustainability means to you
Sustainability in businesses is now defined by environmental, social and governance. Sustainability to the average American means something different to the average African. And to some people who read the word "sustainability," this definition comes up: the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level.
The point is, sustainability means a lot of different things and you must define what it means to you in your communications. When I say this I don’t necessarily mean you need a Merrium Webster definition on-hand, just that you should be mindful of being able to pin-point a few themes around sustainability to focus on as well as a tone for your sustainability story. And that’s something that can evolve over time.
Ideally, your version of sustainability should be tied to your purpose. I love this table from a Medium article about purpose versus sustainability and I think it’s a great place to start.
Image Courtesy of Medium
4. Sustainability is a silo, and not integrated into the work or life you already lead
Say it with me - sustainability is not separate.
Sustainability should be thought of as a value-add, a process, a way of thinking that should be embedded in your life and the work that you do, in your way. Start by reviewing the things you’re already doing and determine whether it is aligned and what is conflicting with pillars of sustainability. Then prioritize and execute with a short-term and long-term communications plan.
I’m not saying you have to be perfect (after all, that's an impossible task), but brainstorm ways sustainability is missing or is communicated as separate, and look for opportunities to have it play a more supporting role. Cast sustainability as a supporting actor, not its own star.
5. You forget to have fun with it
I’ll leave you with the simple reminder that when appropriate, there’s a fair amount of humor, playfulness and fun to be associated with sustainability. Share the good stories, the fun activities, the positive impacts, the cute animal photos and more where it makes sense. And overall, I think the more we can associate sustainability with positive emotions, the more impact we can make. I don’t know about you, but I’m a lot more productive when I’m happy.