Marketing and Comms
How to Avoid the 7 Deadly Sins of Sustainability Communication

Do people care about sustainability? And how do we start to have the kind of influence that we want to have? Those were the opening questions from Betsy Henning, the CEO and founder of AHA! — a content-focused agency from Vancouver — as she kicked off this energetic Monday afternoon workshop at SB’15 London.

Apologizing in advance for an intense three hours, Henning quickly explained that ‘sustainability,’ as a word, is already having a big impact; the use of the word has grown exponentially over the last 20 years - if it carries on at the same rate, it could be the only word we are all using in another 20 years. While this is unlikely, either way it is already being completely overused, which is probably not the best way to make people care about it.

So what is? Or at least, what do we need to consider when looking for a way to make a connection with people through our communications?

First, Henning shared a couple of quotes to emphasize something that is core to the problem: language.

“The language we’re using is too technical, too complicated and not relatable. People in other parts of the business are turning us out.” - Hannah Jones, Chief Sustainability Officer, Nike.

“The language of conscious-free shopping is a clunky vocabulary that instantly brings to mind images of hemp kaftans, recycled tin-can bags and other things I’d rather not swathe my body in, thanks.” - Alexa Chung, in British Vogue.

Bringing these quotes together, Henning asserted: “The language divides us, when it needs to unite us.”

With the foundations for her presentation laid, she moved on to explain how companies go wrong when they are trying to communicate sustainability, which she called the ‘seven deadly sins of sustainability communications’:

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1. Lacking emotion – missing the emotional connection with the audience 2. Too emotional – filling consumers with a sense of fear or failure 3. Too technical, or wonky – using language that is incomprehensible 4. Jargon-y – lazy thinking and lazy copywriting; jargons need translating into everyday terms 5. Ambiguous – either from a lack of clarity of ideas, or from ideas that are just too big for people to understand, let alone knowing how to act 6. Being just like everybody else – digging into brand insights is the only real way to find a story that is different from competitors 7. Disconnected – does the brand have a consistent story across everything and are employees bought into it?

You cannot forget how the message is told. Nelson Mandela said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” Speaking the same language is just the beginning; successfully conveying the message depends on many factors and some of them are likely to go beyond the usual forms of language to include more visual and digital forms in terms of body language and social technologies.

Whatever forms of language you are considering within your communications, the challenge is getting all the pieces working in harmony to deliver consistency.

So, what can we actually do? For starters, we can make sure we include images, and relevant ones, in all our communications because articles featuring images get 94 percent more views than articles without.

Before moving on to case studies, Henning also highlighted five key things we can do as individuals to communicate better:

  • Pause
  • Actively listen
  • Focus on an immediate benefit
  • Use your body
  • Go beyond words

This thinking was demonstrated in a case study on Levi’s:

A number of years ago, Levi’s decided to reduce its water usage in the manufacturing process. Despite achieving this by a whooping 96 percent using a lifecycle analysis, the company realised that this only represented 7 percent of the water use across the whole life of a pair of jeans. So it decided it needed to do more: Consumers needed to be convinced to wash their jeans less.

Fundamental to achieving this was finding the right language. And with this in mind, “Don’t wash the stories out of your Levi’s jeans” soon became the campaign message, championed right from the top, by Head of Global Product Innovation Paul Dillinger. To support this, Levi’s also put a ‘caretag for the planet***’*** on every new pair of jeans, instructing consumers on the most ecological way to look after their Levi’s.

According to Levi’s, the campaign was a huge success, saving more than 1 billion litres of water and changing behaviors for the long term. The language used was a big part of this success, as was the involvement of the CEO as the message carrier – when he didn’t wash his jeans for a year, Levi’s customers took notice and were prepared to do the same.


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