April is Earth Month, which means it’s not just an appropriate time to reflect on what we’re all doing to help the planet, but to also take a high-level look at what’s going on in sustainability communications this year. As someone who has worked in this space for several years, I can safely say the trajectory of sustainability communications has felt like a roller coaster.  

The heady days of late-2019 and early-2020, after the Business Roundtable club of leading CEOs announced a new paradigm shift away from profit-centered to “stakeholder” capitalism, gave way to the upheavals of Covid-19, geopolitical conflict and ongoing political and economic uncertainty to make investors and companies warier of embracing a “green agenda,” both for concrete financial reasons and because of the perceived political implications. And yet, sustainability is not a genie that can just be put back in its bottle.  

As you think about your executive communications and thought leadership around sustainability in 2024, here are a few trends and action steps to consider: 

  1. Keep focusing on climate – but be aware of the politics. Climate change isn’t going anywhere as the the #1 sustainability issue with which organizations must grapple and communicate action around. The regulatory environment globally is moving increasingly toward mandated disclosure of climate impact and targets, and investors and consumers are more keen than ever on climate accountability. But a political backlash against corporate activism and activity makes this a difficult balancing act. That’s why your sustainability communications should emphasize the business risks posed by lack of climate preparedness as well as concrete, achievable goals over lofty ideals. 
  1. Be conscious of changing terminology. Semantics might not seem to matter in the scheme of things, but in the moment they do. And when it comes to sustainability communications, being aware if changing terms is important. The term “ESG,” for example, was once a useful catchall for various business concerns beyond immediate financials. But in 2024 it’s seen as too broad and vague, and investors on both sides of the issue want more specifics on how an organization is sustainable or not. Environmental concerns like climate and biodiversity will be less lumped together with diversity, equity and inclusion or corporate governance, while initiatives unrelated to business materiality but aim to help the planet or society will be termed “social impact” or relate back to the old “corporate social responsibility” umbrella.  
  1. Be mindful of investor skepticism. Even among environmentally and socially conscious investors, ambitious corporate goals have fallen out of favor as the world has grappled with the implications of the green transition. BlackRock’s Larry Fink, who helped push sustainability to the fore among investors, recently argued in his annual letter that investment in certain fossil fuels will need to continue to avoid economic challenges as we curb carbon emissions. This widespread investor wariness of doing too much, too fast needs to be addressed in sustainability communications. While continuing to highlight long-term efforts, it’s crucial to explain how you are ensuring they are both feasible and sustainable.

As we continue into what is preordained to be a tumultuous year, a rethink on sustainability communications is necessary. This field of communications is in never-ending flux. Let’s see what happens next.

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3 Trends in Sustainability Communications for 2024 – And How to Navigate Them was last modified: May 1st, 2024 by Brian Sherry