I enjoyed reading this TriplePundit article earlier in the week, Levi’s Quietly Announces Climate Change Strategy. It touches on a trend that I think a lot of us are observing: companies are actively addressing sustainability issues but they’re not really talking about it publicly. This is particularly true for climate change strategies. And as Mike Bellamente notes:
The unfortunate reality is that climate change remains such a high voltage issue for people that addressing it as a corporation can no longer be effectively marketed as a benefit to consumers….People don’t want to be saddled with the world’s problems when they are out buying jeans. In fact, consumer brands are more likely to risk alienating politically conservative consumers (53% of whom deny global warming) than they stand to gain in boosting sales for demonstrating leadership in corporate responsibility.
At the same time, companies are aware of the risks of climate change, and they are actively addressing them in their business strategies. As one sustainability communicator told me recently, until there is pressure from financial analysts to report on these issues, companies won’t take the risk.
This creates an interesting challenge for public relations departments that want to tell their companies’ stories, but part of the story brings too great a risk. Does the fact that companies are making a priority of sustainability and climate changes strategies obligate them to talk about it? One could argue that by not talking about it, companies are missing out on the opportunity to educate the public on the importance of these issues. And, that could explain, in part, why there is such a disconnect between business behavior and consumer behavior around global environmental issues.
The biggest challenge, of course, is the economics of sustainability. As long as green products cost more than other products, they will be considered a luxury. I appreciate a recent blog post by Robert Axelrod at Fleishman Hillard which suggests that green products be discounted. While this may raise questions among consumers about the quality of green products, it will certainly drive purchasing behavior.
The Institute for Public Relations housed at the University of Florida is an excellent resource for public relations and communications professionals. Check out this excellent post on the IPR blog by Linda Locke at Reputare. She discusses the findings of a number of published research studies on the impact of sustainability and CSR on business outcomes, such at earnings and brand value.
I’ve been reading through a series of articles on CR communication by AHA! found on the Triple Pundit website. Jen Boynton offers some interesting insights in her articles Why Communication Should be at the Heart of Any CSR Strategy, 5 Reasons Why You Need a CSR Communications Roadmap, and Top 10 Mistakes in CSR Communication on how CR communication can help an organization meet its sustainable business objectives. A few points resonated with me and fall in line with research I’m conducting with sustainability communicators at large corporations in the US. This group of passionate communicators loves to talk about their companies’ sustainability efforts, but they’re also candid about the struggles of communicating complex issues to sometimes apathetic and sometimes hostile audiences.
So, here are a few thoughts that I would pass along from Boynton’s articles and from my own experiences. First, if you’ve done something, say it. I’m always surprised when sustainability reputation and reality don’t match. In fact, I’ve talked with a number of companies that the public ranks poorly in sustainability, but the real numbers tell another story. In this case, the companies need to be the ones telling the story. But, often these organizations are afraid of greenwashing, so they err on the side of working quietly behind the scenes. Though this is an honorable approach to sustainability activities, it isn’t helping the companies gain the reputation that they deserve. Transparency can help prevent greenwashing and still let companies tell their story.
However, let’s be honest; not everyone cares about your sustainability efforts as much as you do. Frankly, most people only pay attention when a company is causing harm to the environment. They really don’t care that the company reduced its carbon impact or uses less water in its production processes. They just expect that kind of activity from corporations. So, spending inordinate amounts of time and effort to reach a broad audience with messages of sustainable business practices may not be the best use of resources. Rather, these audiences may want to know about your cause marketing efforts toward environmental issues.
But, some audiences do care. Advocacy groups, local government leaders, community members, and employees want to know about the efforts companies are making to minimize their impact on the environment, so take time to talk with these audiences and listen to what they have to say about your actions. This will build trust and openness in the relationship and lead to long-term gains in reputation.