Want to start a conversation about business sustainability? Phil Forbes offers some wise advice.
Going ‘green’, going ‘eco’, ‘giving back to the planet’. There are a lot of ways to say it and even more ways to create a more sustainable business that does less harm to the planet.
In a world where recycling is almost a political statement, many individuals have underlying personal beliefs about caring for the planet. Whether those views are pro- or anti-environment, starting the conversation in a business landscape to invoke change isn’t always easy.
Whether you’re a consultant, C-level executive, or are simply passionate about corporate responsibility, here are 12 things to keep in mind when you have that conversation about sustainability.
Pick your micro-strategy
‘Going green’ is arguably the new black, with consumers and businesses alike adopting change for many reasons. Lush cosmetics are built around doing as little harm as possible, whereas some do it to appeal to a ‘woke Gen-Z’ consumer.
Fear and guilt won’t help change the fundamental principles of a business that wants to make a profit
Knowing your ‘what’ and your ‘why’ can help you figure out precisely what you want to get from going green.
- Assimilation puts sustainability on the peripheral of your strategy, by conforming to an organisational mindset focussing on profit, efficiencies, savings and sales.
- Mobilisation sees departments and stakeholders given the opportunity to research and implement sustainable ideas in their area. Senior executives are also open to change at a fundamental level.
- Transition sees a business shaping products, policies, processes, values and attitudes toward sustainability over the entire organisation. Sustainability will continue to shape future decisions.
Understand the barriers and reluctance
Many individuals, for both personal and professional reasons, baulk at the idea of being ‘eco-friendly’. Understand that there may be some initial and long-term reluctance to change things for an invisible benefit. Be compassionate and base your arguments for change on alleviating that reluctance, rather than fighting it. Try to meet people where they’re at by understanding them.
Avoid guilt and scare tactics
While the statistics about climate change and the problems that our kids will inherit are daunting, leading with these points won’t be beneficial. Simply put, fear and guilt won’t help change the fundamental principles of a business that wants to make a profit.
Use data but don’t lead with it
The statistics around human-made climate change and the plight of the earth are abundant. They’re essential, but it’s easy to overwhelm those you’re speaking to with facts and statistics. Use this data, but find a way to relate it to your point.
Don’t say: Deforestation causes 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and our use of paper pulp contributes to that.
Do say: Replanting trees can help us lower carbon emissions, offset our usage and generate needed jobs in countries that need it most.
Avoid jargon, define your terms
If you’ve got the ears of those that can implement change, you must establish what certain words mean when you use them. For example, consider words like ‘green’, ‘eco’, ‘bio’ and all those other words that lack a definition. Give your audience your definition and explain what each term means when you say it merely for internal use.
Know who you’re talking to
Knowing the individuals you’re talking to and what’s important to them can help you tailor your message. Do they want to change, but lack the direction? Are they on the fence about it or fiercely opposed? Knowing these sentiments help you establish what to base the conversation around.
Don’t talk sustainability or environment
Relating your key points to a business standpoint can help your audience understand the benefits quicker.
- Don’t talk cutting carbon emissions; talk about appealing to a younger audience.
- Don’t talk about overhauling practices; talk about finding opportunity.
- Don’t talk about recycling; talk about product innovation.
- Don’t talk about non-renewable resources; talk about money savings.
Remember to relate this change to what’s essential for a business – the customer.
Your business is more than a product
There’s more to implementing sustainability into your business than changing your product. Packaging consumables can be made from recycled materials. Manufacturing can be moved centrally to lower carbon emissions from transport. HR, procurement, finance, corporate – all departments can have sustainability pushed through them in one way or another with innovation and creativity.
Be conscious of greenwashing
Green, eco-friendly, sustainable, organic, natural, giving back – all these terms are used to describe caring for the environment while lacking a clear and concise definition. To add to this confusion, larger corporations often shirk their responsibility by passing it on to the consumer.
Australian supermarket giant Coles did this, by replacing single-use plastic bags with thicker plastic bags (and charging customers for it), marketing the move as ‘their pledge to lowering the use of single-use plastics’. Greenwashing is rampant. Avoid it by asking ‘can we do something better?’
It doesn’t have to be perfect at the start
A step in the right direction is a single step, but a step nonetheless. What you’re doing is bringing up the idea of change, and (effective) change doesn’t happen overnight. Consumers are smart and may understand that your first step isn’t going to be the final step, either.
But it’s this step that embodies the change and message that you’re pushing. You may want to take the ‘fortune favours the brave’ approach. In contrast, something as simple as implementing certified eco-friendly packaging may be more appealing to sceptical and risk-averse stakeholders.
Work on transparency
Support the imperfections of your first steps toward sustainability by being transparent about it. Outdoor adventure-wear brand, Patagonia, are known for their pledge to ethical employment and manufacturing. They do, however, use unrenewable materials and chemicals that aren’t overly good for the environment in the production of their garments.
They don’t shy away from this, but rather embrace the fact that there is still work for them to do. By being transparent in this sense, you empower your customer to make their own decisions rather than ‘tricking’ them.
Think about your storytelling
Suppose you find yourself having a more in-depth conversation about sustainability. In that case, you must stamp out what not to do from the earliest possible point. Chances are that your marketing and design team will think leafy green imagery and happy animals – consumers see through that.
Words like ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ mean nothing unless they’re backed up by industry-backed certifications. Having this conversation as early as possible can prevent problems in communicating your sustainability message later down the track.
Sustainability presents a challenge for many, but as buyers begin to put more responsibility on brands, failing to address it puts companies at risk of getting left behind. The conversation about sustainability can be challenging to bring up. Still, if you keep the tips mentioned above in mind, you’ll get the ball rolling and open those in power up to further conversation.
About the author
Phil Forbes is digital marketer at Packhelp