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Sustainability communications – how to talk about it more credibly

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A Deloitte survey in 2021 (Shifting sands: Are consumers still embracing sustainability?) found that around one in three consumers stopped buying certain brands or products due to ethical or sustainability concerns.*

And 34% of people said they’d chosen brands with sustainable practices or values in the previous 12 months.

This sentiment isn’t going away. That’s why your organisation needs to have a sustainability communications plan in place.

It’s not easy, but the findings above make it clear that it needs to be high on your agenda if you want to keep your customers happy and attract new ones.

So, how can you talk about sustainability more credibly?

Before I started my previous job, I had little experience in sustainability.

The great thing was that I learned so much from colleagues, partners and industry experts.

Here are five lessons I learned from my time as the communications manager for a non-profit in sustainable sport: 

Savvy consumers can see straight through a ‘plant some trees and Bob’s your uncle approach’.
Vague statements such as “We’re committed to doing our bit for the environment” or “We’ll be carbon neutral by 2050′ throw up more questions than answers.

At the very least, consumers want to see brands reflecting their behaviours. For example, in the Deloitte survey, 61% of people had cut down on single-use plastics.

If you go on social media, you’ll see brands being called out every day for not doing enough in this respect. Brand loyalty is hard to gain but easily lost.

It might take a bit more time to calculate the exact impact of the measures you’re taking, but it’s worthwhile.

Here are some examples:

* We’re planting more trees to offset our carbon emissions
* We’re an eco-friendly business
* We’re committed to using local suppliers

The statements above would be more powerful if they said:

* This year, we’re planting 104 trees to offset 2.6 tonnes of CO2
* Last year, we switched to 100% recycled cardboard packaging, up from 58% for the previous 12 months
* We’ve reduced our food miles by 36% in 2022. We achieved this by switching to local suppliers.

No business has the perfect approach to sustainability, despite what some might claim.

In my time working with golf courses, being honest was the best policy.

Golf’s gained a bad reputation in some quarters for using a lot of resources. There’s no escaping that.

I’ve seen a few people taking a pop at golf on social media because of this.

The best way to deal with criticism is to acknowledge the past and be specific about what you’re doing now because there are still many organisations doing nothing at all and staying quiet.

Using golf as an example, a club might have changed its fairway mowing patterns and saved time, fuel and reduced its CO2 emissions. However, that particular course might still have huge room for improvement when using recycled water for irrigation.

People will broadly welcome a club taking an honest approach and communicating its sustainable practices as an ongoing journey rather than declaring “we’ve done one thing, and now we’re sustainable.”

Let’s say you’re running an online clothes shop. When you started out, maybe your customers didn’t care about sustainability. Now, they’re asking questions about your supply chain, packaging and delivery options.

The worst thing you can do is try to wing it. Clued up customers can spot that a mile off.

You can’t be an expert in everything, so don’t be afraid to ask for outside help.

There are experts in chambers of commerce as well as independent consultants. Your customers may even be a helpful source of information for moving forward more sustainably.

Bringing in others can make your communications more credible, which will please your customers, attract new ones and reduce the risk of negative online comments.

Running a small focus group or online survey can be a good way to find out what your customers expect from you as a sustainable organisation.

As well as giving your clarity from a business perspective, this can also be great for new website content.

How many of your competitors have a detailed FAQs page on sustainability?

It will feel uncomfortable to begin with, but that’s a good thing.

It’s better to be transparent than hoping the issue will go away. Because it won’t.

Your customers will thank you for it too.

And if you’re unsure about something, either get help as mentioned above or just be honest and say you’re still looking into it and will update people as soon as possible.

For example, most customers will realise it’s not a simple thing to find a more sustainable supplier overnight.

A dog is for life, not just for Christmas (a campaign I remember from my childhood).

And sustainability is not just for awareness days such as Earth Day and World Environment Day.

If the only time you mention sustainability or how you’re planting more trees is on days when you feel you should, that’s a sure-fire way to ruin your credibility.

What is greenwashing? 

A quick Google search says: “Disinformation disseminated by an organisation so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.”

Piping up with some grand claims about how sustainable you are when you think the world is watching won’t cut the mustard.

Actions speak louder than words. Greenwashing is unfortunately rife in the corporate world.

If you’re a charity, vegan brand or non-profit, there’s a big opportunity to engage with your audience by talking about sustainability as much as anything else you’re doing.

Sustainability should be one of your content pillars.

Why? 15% of people surveyed by Deloitte said that not having enough information was a barrier to becoming more sustainable.

The report also found that almost half (46%) of people spoken to said they needed more clarity on the origins or sourcing of products to live a more sustainable lifestyle.

It’s simple. Give people what they’re looking for and not just a few times a year.

As the old saying goes, don’t talk the talk unless you can walk the walk. 

If you need help finding your sustainable voice, learn more about what I do.

* https://www2.deloitte.com/uk/en/pages/consumer-business/articles/sustainable-consumer.html

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