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Storytelling for Sustainability:
It's Time for Corporate Leaders to Gather 'Round the Campfire

The term ‘greenwashing’ might be officially outdated. In 2016, the number of companies making unmerited PR splashes over sustainability is far outweighed by those who are taking significant strides forward and not talking about it. When faced with the science of climate change and transparency into corporate accountability in 2016, sustainability is simply part of doing business.

Yet many leading companies still shy away from fully embracing their sustainability stories. Excellent, groundbreaking work is happening across the private sector with no-one around to hear. To re-philosophize the old saying … if a tree grows in a deforestation zone, and no one is around to hear the re-surging wildlife, does it make an impact?

Unfortunately, the answer is no.

Corporate sustainability has reached new heights, driven new innovations and industries, and been embedded at the core of business strategy and systems, yet there are still barriers to sharing this information publicly.

A Data-Driven Approach to Crafting Messaging That Matters

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Having just surfaced from taking a deep dive into Environmental Defense Fund’s 10-year history of working with Walmart, I’m particularly focused on all the great corporate sustainability stories that need to be told. As an environmental NGO that has partnered on the ground with leading brands for over 25 years, EDF is keenly aware that companies are often doing considerably more sustainability work than they publicize. Why is this? It could be out of fear of greenwashing; fear of financial stakeholders assuming that mindshare has been taken away from the next quarter’s earnings; or perhaps fear of being perceived as irrelevant to their target audiences.

Let me quickly debunk each excuse, using the theme of transparency:

  • Greenwashing — Any leading company telling their sustainability stories must have the science and data to back them up. The transparency trend, as it pertains to a company’s environmental impact, is ramping up. Look at the hundreds of consumer product companies who have signed onto The Sustainability Consortium to better index and surface sustainability across their entire supply chains.
  • Next quarter’s earnings — The financial risks of climate change are also becoming more transparent. In 2050, there will be 9 billion people in the world demanding more of everything — more energy, more food, and more products – using more resources and creating more pollution. Ensuring financial viability in the long-term means embracing, and talking about, corporate sustainability today.
  • Target audiences — From investors to consumers to a new generation of employees, a company’s target audiences are going to increasingly demand transparency into its sustainability actions before choosing to engage with it.

Right now, it’s usually environmental groups, such as EDF, surfacing corporate sustainability stories and inviting people around the campfire. We know that when we amplify this work there is a ripple effect: across supply chains, across industries, to policy-makers, investors and, hopefully, to consumers:

“The problem isn’t that most companies don’t have strong, legitimate things to say about their sustainability efforts. It’s that they try to tell all of it in little bitty ways or they tell none of it — in either case, they don’t make a marketing impact. What works is boiling the story down to a tight, emotionally compelling narrative that aligns with what the market cares about, what the brand stands for and what a company’s internal culture can embrace.”

A key step in the right direction is for the private sector to stand shoulder to shoulder with NGOs in telling their stories: Conservation International and HP, EDF and Walmart, WWF and Coca-Cola. Getting unlikely partners telling their stories together brings important initiatives into the spotlight. EDF and AT&T worked together to create water efficiency tools for buildings, and then went the extra mile by going to water-stressed regions to share best practices with companies and communities.

“When AT&T and EDF take the stage together to talk about our collaboration to drive water efficiency, I feel like people listen twice as hard.”

It’s time to go beyond the annual sustainability report and engage deeply on these stories. PepsiCo did an excellent job of this with their How Will We microsite, launched contiguously to its latest sustainability report. PepsiCo’s chairman and CEO, Indra Nooyi, picked up the pen herself to call for strong heavy-duty truck standards that are good for business and the environment in a recent op-ed with EDF’s Fred Krupp.

So many companies have impactful, innovative, brand-building sustainability stories that aren’t being heard. Excellent work is being done, but often in a marketing vacuum. Making sure these stories are shared is what fuels me — along with a lot of Starbucks.

This post first appeared on the EDF+Business blog on March 17, 2016.


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