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Marketing and Comms
A Radical Approach to Sustainability in B2B Tech:

The ostrich approach to inconvenient problems is a reason why the climate crisis exists. It’s refreshing to see a brand stand up and say, ‘This is what we’re doing. It’s tough. We can’t be perfect. But we’re working hard and this is what we’ve achieved.’

“One in 5 businesses admit to greenwashing, with half saying their sustainability efforts are failing.” So screams one headline in Business Matters. And you don’t have to be a cynic to note that little word, “admit.” The number could be higher — much higher.

This tells us a few things. One is that public pressure to be (or be seen to be) climate-conscious and climate-friendly is sufficiently great to motivate companies to lie. It also tells us that many companies are falling short with respect to sustainability; they wouldn’t have to lie otherwise. And it tells us that to some extent, greenwashing is considered if not quite acceptable then forgivable. Even when anonymous, even when giving information voluntarily, companies aren’t quite worried enough to say they’ve done nothing wrong.

This is a luxury that brands in the B2B tech space don’t have. Because in B2B tech, you frequently don’t choose products — you choose a longer relationship with a vendor by reputation. Truly proprietary tech is rare in the industry; there are usually multiple alternatives to any product you might want. So — especially when dealing with hardware — you distinguish between one vendor and another on the basis of their reputation, the strength of their brand and your relationship with them.

Moreover, brands that sell to consumers — by virtue of their position — must be seen (and demonstrated) to show they care deeply about environmental, social and governance concerns. B2B tech companies are, on the whole, less engaged with ‘purpose’ as an approach to business; but this is changing rapidly. Consumer brands are hyper-aware of how the public — and the media — can freeze out brands that don’t consider people and the planet, and want to know that the companies in their ecosystem aren’t going to make them look bad. B2B brands increasingly face the same pressures.

It’s therefore critically important that B2B tech vendors don’t expose themselves to the charge of greenwashing. They can’t bank on the fact that they’re the only creators or sellers of a certain desirable product; they won’t be. Their reputation is a major part of their business. They need to take good care of it, or the outcome could be damaging — one false claim about their climate policy and they risk sending a large chunk of their customer base to their nearest rival.

Greenhushing — deliberately underreporting or downplaying environmental performance — also won’t cut it for long. Rightly or wrongly, this kind of strategic silence or deliberate ignorance — which might seem like taking a neutral position — is increasingly being seen as a sort of lying by omission. Brands know that climate performance matters to the public. By refusing to discuss it, they avoid being attacked if it doesn’t meet the mark. But the damage has been done by scandal after scandal; and as the planet heats up, public patience for this code of silence is wearing thin. Greenhushing might be tempting — especially in a product-focused space such as B2B tech, where climate comms seem peripheral. But it’s not a long-term solution.

So, here’s a radical suggestion for B2B tech brands: Don’t greenwash and don’t greenhush. Instead, be honest. Reflect on what you’re doing and its impact. Ask yourself if you could do better. And seriously consider the trade-offs that are part and parcel of what you do. Tech supply chains are complex, often global, and frequently opaque. And they’re usually responsible for the lion’s share of a brand’s emissions. Smartphone supply chains, in particular, are notoriously bad for both people and the climate; and yet everyone uses smartphones. There is an acceptance that there are good and bad sides to tech, both in its use and manufacture. B2B tech brands need to understand how the pros and cons stack up and, ultimately, find ways to talk about that.

Companies can then say what actions they’re taking and how it’s progressing. Committing to honesty will encourage your team to be creative in becoming more sustainable. (Necessity, after all, is the mother of invention.) And ideally, B2B tech would do this as a community. To a great extent, all companies are in the same boat — so, starting a conversation means one company doesn’t have to stick its proverbial head above the trenches.

Yet, at the same time, it’s important to note that individual companies don’t have to view climate action and communication as a necessary evil — B2B tech brands stand to make real gains if they go about it the right way. Amid so much distrust regarding sustainability, honesty invites respect. It strengthens bonds with customers. And thanks to its positive effect on brand reputation, it's good for the bottom line. In B2B tech, it could be a key competitive advantage. It’s refreshing to see a brand stand up and say, ‘This is what we’re doing. It’s tough. We can’t be perfect. But we’re working hard and this is what we’ve achieved.’ Tender evaluation forms are also following this in terms of specifying clarity on environmental claims.

Arguably, the ostrich approach to inconvenient problems is a reason why the climate crisis exists, why we now live — to quote the UN’s Antonio Guterres — in the “age of global boiling.” To mix metaphors, we kicked the can down the road. The temptation in B2B tech, as in many other industries, will be to do the same: Rather than grapple with climate action and climate comms, wait it out. Hey, everyone thinks, maybe it’ll go away. But brands will only pay a bigger price further down the line. In contrast, if they act now, talk now, and try to do it together, they stand to benefit.