Published 2 years ago.
About a 4 minute read.
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
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.
Unlock customer insights on sustainability & your brand’s unique performance! Submit your brand (or any brand) into the 2024 annual study and receive unparalleled insights on customer perception of that brand’s performance. Benchmark how your customers rate your brand on social and environmental sustainability and overall brand trust, while seeing how your brand compares to others in the study. Space is limited! The deadline to become part of the study is January 15, 2024.
What’s staggering is that almost every major brand adopts this language. 98
percent of Forbes’ 50 Most Valuable
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
As mentioned in our recent
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
Published Feb 24, 2021 7am EST / 4am PST / 12pm GMT / 1pm CET