Over the past year or so, there’s been a big (and now accelerating) shift in the climate around sustainability communications. Driven by a political backlash, the notion that environmental, social and governance (“ESG”) issues should play a key role in business and investment has been widely challenged or even outright attacked in some cases. As a result, the way companies talk about sustainability is shifting – from enthusiastically touting such initiatives to anything from toning them down to ignoring them altogether. But is this the right communications strategy?
The fact of the matter is that even as attacks on prioritizing sustainability in business have increased, the demand for companies to address their vulnerability to challenges like climate change and impact on the wider environment and society is still there. More than three out of four young Americans think it’s extremely important for companies to operate in an environmentally sustainable way; six in ten employees say they wouldn’t work for organizations that don’t try to address racial injustice; and investors continue to demand that companies incorporate green energy transition and decarbonization into long-term strategies. Neither publicly pivoting away from sustainability nor going silent will be adequate, especially as much of the rest of the world has not seen the anti-ESG surge that we’ve seen in the United States. Rather, companies will need to be more specific, deliberate and focused on real impact when they talk about sustainability. In short, sustainability communications will become more important as sustainability as a concept becomes more controversial.
Sustainability Communications Should Be Focused, Not Broad-Brush
The first thing companies need to do is talk about sustainability in a more focused manner. The concept of “ESG” especially, which brought together issues as disparate as climate change, racial and gender diversity, and more traditional governance matters like board independence and executive pay transparency under the same umbrella, has left both proponents and detractors of ESG unsatisfied, and many investors confused or soured. One solution is to avoid talking about these issues as being inherently bundled together, if possible. Instead, emphasize a handful of key subjects and discuss why they’re important in and of themselves, not because they check the boxes of a vague ESG agenda.
Focus on Action, Not Aspiration or Ideals
The second principle of sustainability communications in a changed landscape is to talk about what you can or are doing to make a difference, not what you think would be “nice to do” in the future. Again, spending time on generalities does little to assuage skeptics or reassure those who do care about sustainability. Your communications channels should emphasize ongoing projects geared toward reaching positive impact, not just “feel-good” language about corporate values that don’t inform actual strategy. Of course, having corporate values is a good part of your brand – but only when tied to action.
Emphasize Why Sustainability is Necessary for Business
Ultimately, business didn’t get involved in sustainability issues just to make people feel good or even just for reputation management (though reputational risk can be quite bad for the bottom line!). Rather, a consensus started to emerge that companies are directly impacted by – and therefore responsible for addressing as part of their fiduciary responsibilities – issues that go beyond traditional business concerns, including direct vulnerability to environmental catastrophe, legal risks incurred from negligence of human capital issues and workforce depletion by not promoting diverse and inclusive workplaces, among others.
These issues matter for investors and other stakeholders. Don’t be afraid to say so, rather than portraying sustainability as just hyped-up corporate social responsibility. But convincing stakeholders depends on the first two principles/recommendations of sustainability communications outlined here: focusing on directly impactful issues that you’re working concretely to address.
Sustainability isn’t a fad that is going away; it’s here to stay because investors, employees, consumers and regulators will keep pressing companies on it, but what has changed is that scrutiny will mount around what your company is actually doing, whether what it’s doing is necessary and how well your company is doing it. We’ve reached not the death of sustainability but its maturity – and this is the point when communications will be pivotal in maintaining confidence in your strategy.