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It’s Time to Break Free from Sustainability’s Ivory Tower

One major reason that most sustainability writing is bad is that it’s written by a microscopic number of smart people who think and talk the same way, unintentionally excluding the bulk of audiences that need to be spoken to.

In our last piece, we explored why sustainability writing is, for the most part, bad. Today, we dive into what made it that way in the first place. Spoiler alert: A lot of it can be traced to sustainability being written about by a microscopic number of smart people who think and talk the same way, unintentionally excluding the bulk of audiences that need to be spoken to. And that is what we call sustainability’s ivory tower.

It all starts with the origins of sustainability. Scientists and academics rang the alarm bells of humanity’s dangerous environmental impacts in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. While the conversation slowly grew momentum, the narrative was still largely shaped by scientists and academics, who are not communicators by nature. Sustainability is a science and should remain a science. But there is a need for communicators to understand the subject and translate it, because most of us haven’t encountered a molecule since scraping by in school.

Julia Giannini at ITV, one of the interviewees for our Words That Work research, put it succinctly:

“The reason why we’re here is because academics and scientists were communicating; but they’re not communicators. Carbon dioxide levels, degrees of warming and environmental concepts are not going to motivate behavioural change. You need the comms and marketing experts in the room who know how to frame messages that cut through, that are easy to understand, and allow people to act.”

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We need more sustainability communicators who understand both sides of the coin. The gravity of not having ‘bilingual’ communicators came to light in other interviews with sustainability leaders for our research. For example, scientists will fight to include data in its entirety, whilst communicators know that fewer compelling messages will do the job better. On the other hand, if you leave it up to communicators without sustainability knowledge, they might miss the mark on significant sustainability messages. We heard of one instance where marketers disregarded their brand’s science-based target because they did not understand its significance.

Even if the right hybrid communicators are in place, there is another underlying issue that is harder to fix: sustainability’s privilege problem. 72 percent of sustainability managers have a Master’s degree (GreenBiz, 2020), which is staggeringly high when compared to the 13 percent of US adults who have one. We’re not surprised; after all, sustainability is a highly technical and scientific subject. But we tend to write from our own perspective. And if most of the sustainability field shares the same experience and level of education, you can be sure their communications and perspectives will neglect a multitude of audiences.

Another aspect of sustainability’s privilege problem is that 77 percent of corporate sustainability managers are white (GreenBiz, 2020). The same trends are even more pronounced in NGOs and foundations. 2020’s [Black Lives Matter](/browse/subjects/black-lives-matter) protests and the resulting movement for truly inclusive cultures have challenged status quo for all communications. Sustainability is no exception. We need to get out of the ivory tower and invite new voices to the stage.

These factors lead to sustainability silos in every way. In businesses, we often see sustainability departments cast off in their own corner to work on corporate commitments — thankfully, this is slowly shifting, as sustainability inches closer to core strategy and operations. Silos are also apparent in wider media narratives, in the dividing lines between topics such as the ‘economy’ and ‘the environment,’ as if the two are not intimately connected. For example, one of our interviewees — ecolinguistics professor Arran Stibbe — discussed how the environment section of a newspaper might celebrate decreasing sales of diesel cars, while the business section in the same newspaper would lament it as bad for economic growth. The result is that when sustainability issues are communicated, they tend to feel isolated and artificially separated from the wider world and context, making their real importance less apparent or completely disjointed from broader narratives.

No one on this planet should be excluded from the sustainability narrative. We need everyone to care about what the future holds — and for them to care, they need to be spoken to in ways they relate to. This just isn’t possible when sustainability is siloed in its educational background, sociodemographic makeup and disjointed narratives.

So, here is our challenge for you: Follow these principles before embarking on any sustainability communications piece, no matter how big or small, to begin your descent from sustainability’s ivory tower.

  1. Put your audience first. Knowing what your audience wants to hear is the first step to adopting an outside-in approach. It sounds simplistic, but we’ve seen too many brands think about what they want to say to the world before considering what the world wants to hear from them.

  2. Bring diverse voices and perspectives into the room. And listen to them. This can be done by hiring a range of content creators, sourcing stories from a wider net, and involving employees across departments.

Redefining the status quo can be uncomfortable. But in our experience, it’s something to look forward to. Breathing new life into sustainability communications can be refreshing, eye-opening and even fun. So, let’s begin the descent from sustainability’s ivory tower — and slowly, we can destroy it.


This article is the second of a three-part series, based on the findings in Radley Yeldar’s new 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.

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