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How can communications boost sustainability programmes?

by Sophie Lambin and Larry Yu

In June, the United States announced it would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. In response, US businesses from ExxonMobil to Microsoft reiterated their support for the accord. When government retreats from global challenges, can business save the world?

Corporate leaders are taking that responsibility seriously. For the past few years, chief executives and other top corporate leaders globally have identified sustainability as a top global challenge or even a perennial strategic challenge, in the Conference Board’s CEO Challenge Survey.

But even as companies execute their sustainability efforts, they aren’t communicating them effectively. A common perception among experts and across private and public sectors – founded or unfounded – is that the private sector is not living up to expectations. In a GlobeScan, SustainAbility and Sustainable Brands report on institutions leading sustainability, the private sector’s sustainability efforts were viewed positively by just a fifth of respondents, who are sustainability experts across business, government, NGOs and academia, even as 34% rated it as vital to sustainable-development progress.

Yet as corporate sustainability matures, communications becomes more essential.

Last year, we teamed with executive-search leaders Spencer Stuart to ask sustainability heads at large global corporations about the leadership challenges of their sustainability strategy, the skills their sustainability functions needed, and the drivers of a high-impact sustainability strategy. In the resulting report, ‘License to Thrive’, we found that CSOs aspire and expect to integrate sustainability strategy more deeply into business strategy; 84 percent of respondents expect sustainability and business strategy to be more aligned over time.

Importantly, sustainability is becoming a relationship function rather than a technical one: 61 percent of respondents said their teams would need to be able to collaborate effectively across functions, and 51 percent said team members must be able to build strong relationships across all levels of an organisation.

Our findings reflect the maturation of sustainability. Where once the sustainability function was limited to regulatory compliance or to achieving efficiency gains, it is now more strategic in its intent, requiring a range of relationships across business units, geographies and functions. And the backbone of any good relationship is good communications.

Why communicate?

Nearly half of respondents in our survey said their teams would need communications and strategy skills most in the future (see figure). What does that tell us about sustainability and communications?

Communications skills in demand for sustainability

Much has been written on public-facing sustainability communications, such as addressing consumer suspicions of greenwashing. Such suspicions are understandable, especially after scandals such as Volkswagen’s technical departments manipulating its vehicles’ emissions tests. Indeed, public distrust of sustainability communications runs so deep that some companies are leery of publicising even their genuine environmental efforts.

Yet communications can facilitate a company’s sustainability journey when they are part and parcel of a true sustainability programme. Communicating better about sustainability – with the right audiences – can help drive sustainability maturity and integrate sustainability into the core business. It’s not communicating about your existing sustainability achievements; it’s engaging to enable you to achieve more with your sustainability.

For example, outreach to other companies and partners, including competitors and firms across an entire industry, can spark industry initiatives to make a change together. Or educating and empowering employees to take ownership of an issue can help integrate sustainability into business operations, supply chain and strategy.

As sustainability functions progress through a maturity curve, we’re studying how communications can make them stronger. If you have thoughts and questions, we’d love to hear from you.

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