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Marketing and Comms
Bad Sustainability Writing Is Everywhere, and It’s a Problem

The proliferation of ineffective communications is holding sustainability back in its most critical decade. There is no more time for boring, beige writing. We need language that teaches, convinces and inspires — before it’s too late.

There. We said it.

It’s something that’s been bothering us for a while now, at Radley Yeldar. Time and time again, we see brands abandon their uniqueness for blandness when it comes to sustainability communications. They default to a generic brand of sustainability that ends up literally everywhere — from product packaging to corporate communications to advertising campaigns. What worries us is how the proliferation of ineffective communications is holding sustainability back in its most critical decade. And we all know there is no time for boring, beige writing. We need language that teaches, convinces, and inspires — before it’s too late.

First off, it might help to explain what we mean by ‘bad.’ Some years ago, we explored the visual clichés of sustainability communications. You know it when you see it, because it is everywhere: lots of green, lightbulbs, an odd mix of dated corporate graphics, endless icons, and off-tone cutesy illustrations are just some examples. We called the generic brand of sustainability “Stock Sustainability.” We found the same problem with how sustainability is written. Verbal Stock Sustainability is a mix of science; corporate ‘business speak’; and strings of unconvincing, vague sentiments.

We identified eight clusters of clichés typically found in sustainability communications — including “we are committed,” “the future,” “our biggest challenge,” and more. Alone, these clichés might be harmless. But when sewn together into sentences and paragraphs, they turn into language that is robotic at best, fake at worst.

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What’s staggering is that almost every major brand adopts this language. 98 percent of Forbes50 Most Valuable Brands used at least one cliché on their sustainability websites; and on average, they used four out of the eight clichés. We also found that on average, they used the word ‘sustainability’ ten times per webpage — while leading sustainable brands (such as Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s and Allbirds) only use the word once.

As mentioned in our recent webinar, many of us look to the world’s largest brands for best-practice examples. When the world’s most well-resourced and established brands fall into these traps, they set the precedent for all brands worldwide. The result is that for most sustainability writing, you could swap one brand name for another and not be able to tell the difference. Fast-food companies sound the same as banks, as fashion retailers, as technology companies.

When it’s not riddled with clichés, sustainability writing also turns audiences off by incorporating an unhealthy level of jargon. Some level of technical language is expected when speaking to expert audiences, but chances are your communications don’t just target sustainability experts. Sustainability is a science. But communicating it too scientifically will only make the subject more unrelatable and inaccessible. Calibrate your level of jargon by starting with a deep understanding of your many audiences. From our own experience, sustainability communications have a breadth of audiences that few other communications have. It’s a challenge that’s worth addressing — because when you cater to everyone, you end up speaking to no one.

Another trope of sustainability writing is attempting to communicate the scale of problems by emphasizing their magnitude. How many times have you read an article beginning with a sweeping apocalyptic statement, like “we have until 2030 to save the planet”? Although tempting to reel in your audience with a grandiose systemic truth, they do a disservice by making them feel hopeless — potentially feeding fatalism. The more macro the statement, the less relatable it will be. In some cases, the same depressing message has been repeated so often that people have just turned off.

Normal people and communications don’t speak like this. The clichés are enough to put people off, but mixed with jargon and scary statements, and you have a recipe for writing guaranteed to switch off any audience. Not only is the language itself ineffective, but its sameness across all brands means that sustainability is a differentiator for no one. The most iconic brands occupy a unique and compelling position in the mind — these rules should not be abandoned when it comes to sustainability.

Great language exists already, within the world but also within your business. It’s just a matter of applying it to your sustainability communications.

This article is the first of a three-part series, based on the findings in our new thought leadership report, Words that Work: effective language in sustainability communications*. It explores what is wrong with how sustainability is written, 10 principles for how to fix it, and creative examples of what great looks like. Download the full report here.