Sustainability communication is an integral part of corporate responsibility. But why is it important? Recent extreme weather events highlight climate change's urgency and its tangible effects now impact individuals, businesses, and economies. With scandals, greenwashing, and widespread mistrust, stakeholders are becoming increasingly aware of corporate responsibility. Companies must now tackle the issue of greenwashing, adopt sustainable practices, and authentically communicate these efforts to stakeholders. Please note the sustainability communications information contained in this section is separate from sustainability reporting.
This section discusses communications relating to marketing materials, social media, website copy, press releases, blog posts, articles and other written information.
What is sustainability communication and why does it matter?
Sustenuto defines sustainability communication as:
“the act of consciously integrating sustainability in a communication strategy by telling stakeholders about a company's sustainability goals and efforts.”
Sustainability communication is therefore a valuable tool and a bridge between organizations, individuals, and the broader stakeholder community to promote sustainable activities.
In the era of global boiling, sustainability communications are more important than ever. A new generation of well-educated consumers and stakeholders can distinguish between authentic sustainability efforts and greenwashing. They seek transparency, honesty and prefer to engage with products and services that align with their conscious values.
What is currently wrong with sustainability communications?
In their extensive research in sustainability communication, Radley Yeldar team spoke to professionals from various sectors to understand the strengths and weaknesses of sustainability communication. They used language analysis software and manual review to analyze sustainability webpages from 50 of Forbes' top 100 brands, comparing them to leading sustainable brands. They also reviewed existing research and interviewed experts from different disciplines. The findings showed that while sustainability communication has been advanced, many improvements still need to be made.
The research highlighted several issues:
Complex insider language is often used, which can alienate the general audience.
Sustainability is often communicated in a complex way which may not be relatable to most people.
Overused terms like "sustainability" have lost their meaning, and many buzzwords like “eco-friendly” and “green” further dilute the message.
Many sustainability communications fall into a "stock sustainability pattern" using generic corporate language such as “for our shared future” that lacks authenticity.
How to communicate effectively
The PRCA’s Communications Guidelines for APAC, released in September 2023 provide a clear set of guiding principles to refer to when communicating environmental sustainability actions of businesses. These guidelines help companies ensure that their environmental claims are authentically communicated with transparency. The guidelines are as follows:
The PRCA’s Communications Guidelines provide detailed explanations of each of the 5 steps for companies to follow to ensure transparent communications and avoid greenwashing. Below is a summary of the guidelines:
PRINCIPLE 1: MAKE ACCURATE & SCIENCE-BASED CLAIMS AND SUBSTANTIATED STATEMENTS
Avoid misleading statements or visual treatments related to environmental aspects or advantages
Use reliable and credible third-party data or research conducted by the company to support claims
Ensure that substantiations for claims are easily accessible, searchable, and understandable to consumers
Clarify and verify claims when promoting sustainability-linked products or services
PRINCIPLE 2: BE SPECIFIC ABOUT THE TERMINOLOGY USED
Use technical language or terms backed by reliable scientific evidence
Contextualize and substantiate terms like "recyclable", "biodegradable/bio-based", or "ocean plastic" when describing product life cycle strategies
Substantiate net-zero or carbon-neutral claims with clear communication on methodology and accounting metrics used
PRINCIPLE 3: CONSIDER THE CONTEXT OF A CLAIM
Share information about environmental progress in the context of the company or product life cycle
Avoid implying that specific product or activity claims extend to the overall performance of a company, group, or industry without appropriate substantiation
Specify to what the claim relates (e.g. product, specific ingredient, packaging)
Use alternative means to make qualifying information readily accessible when time or space is limited
Best Practice: Seek information from stakeholders about measures taken to establish the veracity of a claim, such as conducting life cycle analysis or carbon footprint
PRINCIPLE 4: DEMONSTRATE INCREMENTAL IMPACT
Pre-existing aspects should not be presented as new
Keep environmental claims up to date
Do not claim to have achieved sustainability without definitive methods for measuring it
Make clear and specific comparative claims
Do not base claims on the absence of an associated component
Avoid presenting generic features as unique or remarkable
Claim environmental superiority only with a significant advantage
Check specificity and basis of comparison
Avoid misleading labels or claims
Robust substantiation needed for absolute claims
PRINCIPLE 5: COMMUNICATE WITH TRANSPARENCY
Balance positive and negative environmental aspects in communications
Avoid cherry-picking information or spotlighting certain segments to create misleading impressions
Consider the overall sustainability of a product, service, brand, or business
Work with stakeholders to advocate for a balanced and transparent approach to communications
Include links to more information about broader sustainability efforts and progress
For examples of companies with purpose who are excelling in their sustainability communications, please refer to the websites of LUSH, The Body Shop and Patagonia.
Sustainability Communications Guidelines and Regulations
Sustainable communication guidelines are evolving rapidly. Below are some of the requirements that have been developed worldwide to assist organizations in developing and implementing sustainable communication guidelines.
Please note this is a rapidly evolving space and these guidelines are subject to change. It is recommended to check the updated details online.
Singapore Code of Advertising Practice(SCAP):The SCAP establishes advertising standards and guidelines in Singapore. This code helps organizations ensure their advertising practices uphold ethical standards and accurately communicate their sustainability efforts to consumers. In addition, according to Sandra Seah, Bird & Bird, “The Singapore Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act 2003 (CPFTA) protects consumers against false or misleading claims, including those related to greenwashing. The CPFTA is administered by the Competition and Consumer Commission of Singapore (CCCS) and CCCS will likely be the agency overseeing any greenwashing concerns.”
EU Green Claims Directive:This sets out rules for organizations making environmental claims in their marketing and advertising materials. It ensures that businesses accurately portray their environmental impact and avoid misleading consumers, promoting transparency and credibility in sustainability communication. From 2026, the EU is to ban greenwashing and improve consumer information on product durability.
UK Green Claims Code:administered by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), The UK Green Claims Code offers guidance on avoiding misleading or unsubstantiated environmental claims in advertisements.
Referring to sustainable communication guidelines helps communicate sustainability efforts and avoid greenwashing. Making certain claims such as organic claims for example should only be made if the product is certified organic by one of the world’s recognized certification bodies, such as the UK Soil Association. Another tool which can help businesses is communication planning.
The Benefits of Communicating Sustainability Accurately
Good communication for sustainability is important for businesses, regardless of their size and sector.
Here are some benefits to good sustainability communications:
Employee Alignment: Enhances morale and aligns team members with organizational values and goals.
Stakeholder Trust: Builds and solidifies trust through transparent and accountable practices.
Investor Appeal: Potentially augments organizational valuation and investor relations by showcasing commitment to sustainability.
Brand Reputation: Improves organizational reputation and brand image among consumers and industry peers.
Market Positioning: Enables creating a niche in the market as a responsible and conscious business.
Consumer Loyalty: Improves customer loyalty by resonating with their values and ethical expectations.
Partnership Opportunities: Opens avenues for collaborations and partnerships with like-minded entities and initiatives.
Risk Mitigation: Enables organizations to address and communicate sustainability risks, averting potential crises proactively.
Developing a Sustainability Communications Strategy
Before crafting your sustainable message, these are the steps required to craft your narrative in a way that is meaningful and compelling for your multi-stakeholder audience:
1. DEFINE YOUR OBJECTIVES
Identify communication objectives that align with your company's sustainability goals.
Prioritize the most critical outcomes.
Consider external frameworks like the Sustainable Development Goals.
2. KNOW YOUR TARGET AUDIENCE
Tailor your message to your target audience's specific needs, values, and concerns.
Understand who you are trying to reach and consider factors such as location, existing engagement, communication channels, and preconceptions.
3. CRAFT A COMPELLING STORY
Articulate why sustainability matters, the steps your organization is taking, and the impact of your initiatives.
Make it specific to your organization and consider your stakeholders' perspectives.
Determine the information you want people to know, the emotions or attitudes you want to evoke, and the actions or behaviours you want your audience to take.
5. SELECT APPROPRIATE COMMUNICATION CHANNELS
Align your message with effective channels, including traditional media, social media, and digital platforms, to reach and resonate with your audience.
6. DEVELOP A COMMUNICATION PLAN
Create a plan that defines goals, identifies target audiences, develops key messages, chooses appropriate channels, and sets metrics for success, while being adaptable to changes.
7. ENSURE CONTINUOUS COMMUNICATION
Regularly update stakeholders about your sustainability efforts and progress to maintain engagement and relevance.
8. TRACK AND ADAPT YOUR PROGRESS
Monitor the effectiveness of your communication strategy, make necessary adjustments, and regularly measure and report progress to build trust and credibility.
Sustainability communication demonstrates the commitment of a company to speak truthfully and authentically about its sustainability strategy, goals, and efforts. It helps companies build their reputation, create a competitive advantage, and engage diverse stakeholders.