Green Without Greenwashing
My posts about green branding and design have been generating some great discussion and traffic. But I recently had a complacency check courtesy of the folks at CSRWire, who raised concerns about the relevance of my content to a critical audience -- sustainability officers at more traditional corporations. It's all very well talking green branding for start-ups, non-profits and solar companies who are mission driven at their core – but what about those working to create change from within "the system." As I argued in my post on the failed Far Coast initiative, If you're Coca Cola (or Heinz or General Motors), your corporate values were forged in a time before climate change — before the terms "sweatshop", "organic agriculture" or "TreeHugger" became commonplace. This fact makes it extremely challenging for traditional companies to create sincere messaging around their sustainability initiatives. Yet as evidenced by the presence of major corporations on CSR Newswire, such companies are making serious efforts to change their ways. And part of those efforts is communicating their responsible practices so consumers can make responsible decisions.
But what do you do once the ball is rolling? How do you talk to the outside world? How can a public corporation credibly convey its CSR practices to audiences suspicious of their sincerity? It's a bit like a poker game -- the more players know you have a reason to bluff, the less likely they are to believe you.
To corporate sustainability officers everywhere -- here is some counsel on how to talk your walk with the outside world.
Six Steps for Genuine Corporate Sustainability Communication
1.Keep control of your communications.
Sometimes easier said than done, I know. Between lawyers, PR folks and CEOs, there can be a lot of folk wanting to input on the company's sustainability message - and sometimes that input can be necessary and useful. But all too often the content related to environmental or social responsibility gets drafted by PR folks, and not always the most experienced PR folk at that. Ultimately the responsibility for sustainability-oriented communications should rest with those most intimately involved with sustainability issues, although collaborating with PR, branding and marketing teams can certainly add extra flair if approached with care.
2. Humility and sustainability go hand-in-hand.
Most companies are used to communicating their core business -- which means it's necessary to position your product as superior. Consequently, the comfort zone for corporate communications is to create work with gorgeous images, uplifting music, and beautifully crafted copy about how wonderfully you do what you do. While this may help sell cars, it creates doubt when selling sustainability, which is a relatively new issue - and a thorny one.
To the extent you discuss your efforts with appropriate humility, you will help customers identify with you, and you will incur trust, rather than suspicion. Instead of communicating against the grain (telling a suspicious audience how great you are), it's much more effective to tell people you're trying hard to find ways to tackle giant problems and contribute to solutions. In executional terms, this means more down-to-earth, candid messaging and less manipulative production techniques.
3. Transparency enhances credibility.
When was the last time you saw an ad from Exxon, Chevron, or BP actually address their core product – gasoline? Instead, they're all talking about renewable energy and climate change. By being transparent about the limitations and weaknesses of your practices, not only do you demonstrate that your efforts are earnest — you give people evidence. This positively predisposes people toward your brand, and positions you against your less-than-transparent competition.
4. Discuss how you got to where you are.
As mentioned above, most transnational corporations were founded in an era when pollution, scarcity, and climate change were non-issues. By acknowledging this fact, it neutralizes negative blowback from your pre-sustainability days. For example, if you're Coca Cola, don't pretend that water conservation issues have always been a major focus of your company. Explain that you began in a world where pollution and water limitations weren't on the radar. This way, you alleviate suspicions rather than raise them. Think about it in human terms. When someone tells you honestly how they got to where they are, you are more likely to identify with their story.
5. "Unwrap" the big words.
Terms like "sustainability", "environment", and "minimize" have little resonance. They sound corporate. And the more corporate you sound, the less genuine you sound. Yet these are ultimately human issues that we all share. It's an opportunity to demonstrate the humanity and genuine concern that is behind corporate social responsibility.
6. Talk human and be relevant to your business.
The environment is tangible -- it's air, water, woods, and our future. Yet again and again, it seems as though a company's CSR text is written by lawyers who want to ensure that as little as possible is said.
Click through to page two for some examples of how this advice on corporate sustainability communications might work in practice.