Stakeholder Trends and Insights
'Sustainable' Is No Longer Enough:
Tim Gnatek on the Future of Sustainability Messaging

As climate issues, resource depletion and social issues begin to inform corporate strategy, brands need to communicate their values, experiences, and solutions. New crises demand new strategies, and San Francisco-based PR and media strategy firm Blue Practice prides itself on offering companies a unique range of tools for effective sustainability storytelling.

Just after the firm’s recent relaunch, we spoke with co-founder and president Tim Gnatek about the top trends emerging in the field and the future of sustainability communication.

What do you see as some of the top trends emerging in the field?

TG: One of the big ones is putting transparency into context. There have been tremendous inroads into getting more visibility into how products are made and impact is achieved, and companies recognize that consumers expect greater visibility into products and pipelines.

Communicators are finding that this can lead to a lot more confusion with audiences who don’t know how to decrypt the new influx of information or where to turn for trusted context of how to interpret it. Putting that framework of transparency into better context, so more understanding and meaningful interaction can take place, is a tremendous opportunity to capitalize on corporate sustainability commitments.

From a comms perspective, we see a return to the influence of media on sustainability communications efforts. Content creation and direct engagement campaigns will continue to be an important part of outreach and education, but again, speaking to issues of credibility and context, media have taken a backseat until recently — partly due to struggles to work out their own business models — and now we’re seeing an influx of strong reporting to elevate accountability and responsibility.

Traditional outlets like The Times and Guardian, more specialized outlets like Huffington Post Green, GreenBiz and Sustainable Brands, and rising independent publications like Climate Confidential and individual influential bloggers are absolutely critical in helping distill the news from the hype.

Third, an evolution from corporate sustainability reporting to more immersive engagement programs. There is a huge opportunity to collaborate with employees, customers and other stakeholders that isn’t being taken advantage of by many organizations. Reporting has to be the first step, but we’re seeing more and more organizations look beyond reporting mechanisms to realize ways that brands can become champions and inspire and set an example for communities.

What is the key difference in promoting sustainability in PR/Marketing and all other ‘storytelling’?

TG: Sustainability communications has to be dictated by honest, open interaction between audiences. Promoting sustainability in itself is a dead end — its function has to be seen as more fundamental than a tool for promotions, or elevating market perceptions. That won’t pass the smell test with audiences today. Our role should be to connect the dots and allow for communications to have a vehicle for sharing a deeper story about an organization’s role within the community (writ small or large) and how actions are tracked to its mission, minimize risk and maximize opportunity.

What are some of your favorite examples of campaigns or initiatives that have raised the bar in terms of broadening sustainability awareness or engagement?

TG: There are some excellent recent examples of corporate engagement that both build the brand and do good work. A few examples that come to mind are the bar-setting way that Greenpeace took on Shell with the “Everything is NOT Awesome” video campaign (and compelled LEGO to rethink its relationship with them). Levi’s recent move to build skateparks inSouth Africa is a notable and authentic means to engage that reflects appropriately on the brand identity. That’s a good pairing.

On the Blue Practice team, we were proud to have recently supported the Guinness World Record-breaking longest EV road trip (12,000+ miles) to raise awareness for the need to install better EV charging infrastructure in the U.S. The apparel industry’s been at the forefront of sustainability and social impact for a long time, and it’s very exciting to see a lot of momentum building in that space, from the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to organizations like Fashion Positive that are setting a roadmap for better engagement between industry and consumers.

How has consumer sensibility changed since you began Blue Practice?

TG: Sustainability isn’t really a fixed thing in the mind of the consumer, and so consumer sensibilities have changed nearly as much as the targets that companies have set to measure and participate in it. Public attention is fickle, and to remain engaged, communicators have to find new ways to tap into what’s considered timely and important. You could say that consumers are a little more sophisticated, but they’ve also been tapped from recession, housing challenges, national security, and a myriad of other concerns.

We can’t expect to have the same myopic attention to “green” as we have in years past. Attention to sustainability as an end goal in itself is gone — and good riddance to it. It’s more about seeing sustainability as something that needs to be continually crafted in context with the why — why that should be important given the evolving modern context. I long for the time when sustainability is intrinsic, and seen just as a “better” way to do things — better value, better health, better impact, better alignment.

As the “emerging-conscience company” proliferates, how are metrics unique to sustainability evolving and how long will it be before sustainability is as important to ROI as all other factors?

TG: Drawn from our ongoing work with Bill McDonough and the Cradle to Cradle framework, we believe that being “sustainable” isn’t enough. That’s a starting point for engagement. But we have to start charting for a world where we have more attention to designing for beauty and abundance — the world we want to live in. When that shift can happen, questions like ROI become self–evident. The opportunity to find ways to use “sustainability” as a path to exceed expectations and add the kind of value that increasingly brings people to a higher ideal is where the opportunity lies in the future, and where such “emerging conscience” companies can play a role in pushing what’s possible.

The "language barrier" between Marketing and Sustainability teams has been well-documented — what is your advice to companies on how to best close this gap?

TG: One of the greatest things to do is ensure that the two can understand and leverage one another; there almost needs to be a mediator between the two departments — someone smart on sustainability who also speaks marketing language and can see opportunity — to help facilitate the two. Marketing needs to understand how to speak to and message sustainability — there are nuances and tact that are sometimes lost, risking overselling sustainability aspects and jeopardizing trust, or simply missing big-picture opportunities.

Likewise, sustainability professionals can miss opportunities to build a story and engage their audiences more fully throughout their journey of improvement. We have found, as a firm that exclusively focuses in the space, that there’s an opportunity to help both sides, and will often work as an intermediary to bring context holistically to both departments.

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