Article | 17 Aug 2022

Sustainability in 2022: 3 Insights Into Ethically Conscious Business (+ 9 key takeaways for brands and professionals)

Posted in PR and Communications, Business, Top tips, Tools & Advice, Learning,

There are few priorities for businesses greater than sustainability. It's a big word, with even bigger objectives, and potentially hundreds of meanings, metrics, and tactics.

Suffice to say this increased emphasis - and awareness - has resulted in greater investment into every aspect of these objectives. Including PR and communications.

During our recent webinar co-hosted by PRCA, our panellists spoke about some of the most pressing (and controversial) issues facing organisations today in their sustainability efforts. And importantly, how these translate in the public eye.

Featuring Caroline Randle, Head of Communications at Energy Transition Commission, Susan Brownlow, an independent consultant specialising in energy transition, sustainability and climate, and Jonathan Chandler, founder of The Tilton Consultancy.

You can watch the full webinar here.

Insight #1: Sustainability Has Changed

We might be decades beyond the first ESG frameworks, sustainability goals, and carbon neutral statuses, but how we understand and think about the topic has changed radically.

Previously, sustainability might’ve been addressed as an adjacent to business operations; a nice-to-have. Now, organisations have legal and financial requirements, and moralistic pressure to tackle their impact.

“[Sustainability] has changed from being something that’s the right thing to do, to becoming an explicit part of a business plan.”

– Susan Brownlow

The threat of being labelled as ‘greenwashing’ is certainly a contributing factor, regardless of whether it’s a verifiable fact or not. Caroline Randle stipulates that the phrase is often used as an umbrella term, and a headline grabber, and won’t always be accurate.

And while she chooses not to partner with businesses found to be greenwashing, Susan Brownlow admits there’s little you can do in the weeks following such an accusation except wait it out.

Key Takeaways:

  • Think: audience first. Whether you’re targeting an industry title, a broadsheet or the general public, different audiences will have different perceptions. Even if the story you’re telling is the same, tailored messaging remains central to effective communication. 
  • ESG is much more than recycling. Returning to our earlier point: sustainability has a range of definitions, including people-first interests. Thinking about it holistically enables businesses to create greater impact and more authentic narratives, rather than focusing on a narrow understanding of 'doing good'.
  • Know that success could be long-term. PR professionals might see success as coverage in a dominant publication, or even strong brand perception. But for businesses, success in sustainability can be a long-term, consistent and ongoing aim. The outcomes might not be evident for years or even decades.

Insight #2: Prevention > A Cure

In an ideal world, an organisation's prevention tactic is to take action, and/or have an active sustainability programme in place.

Prevention through narrative is also imperative, according to Jonathan Chandler. He discusses how companies are training their workforce on the dangers of greenwashing and false sustainability claims.

“Showcasing how corporations address their issues, and the tone of communication used is a really important element which can sometimes be forgotten.”

– Caroline Randle

Failing that? Well, should something go wrong, the best course of action will nearly always be to get ahead of the story. It may not seem like a new strategy, but the central difference here is that false sustainability claims can bury brands.

It's amongst the few PR disasters which can, and it's thanks in part to global connection and impact, Caroline Randle argues. She highlights that while local interest is still valid, different regions will have different impacts because of globalisation. So action - and communication - needs to reflect that.

Key Takeaways:

  • Take a deep dive. Scrutinising an organisation’s sustainability proposition or ESG framework – as well as how these are being communicated – will help identify gaps and potential PR catastrophes before they occur.
  • Overusing is the enemy. Jumping on certain phrases, initiatives or narratives can be detrimental to your strategy. If you're perceived as 'trend-waving', this may quickly feel disingenuous, and could get you into hot water if said initiative is found to have negative side effects.
  • Broader than the end goal. A distant target can feel abstract, and achieving the legal minimum is no longer good enough. Instead, consider centring efforts on the journey: what change is the business committing to? How is it going beyond the end target? What comes next? This will help you build out a vivid and compelling proposition and story.

Insight #3: Self-Interest Isn't A Negative

It's easy for businesses to assume that sustainability is contrary to, or even actively inhibits commercial goals. Not so.

For one, buyers and professionals alike are increasingly attracted to purpose-driven organisations, with strong ESG values. Something that's likely to grow as younger generations enter the fold. 

And as Jonathan Chandler points out, appearing to do what's right is no longer a viable PR stunt. Companies are being 'outed' by their own sustainability or public affairs officers for immoral or illegal practices. Making the case for meaningful and honest efforts much stronger in the face of growing whistleblowing.

“The answer is pretty clear: be the organisation you desire to be and bring people in who challenge, change and innovate.”

– Jonathan Chandler

And it isn't only the immediate operations coming into focus - it's the end-to-end supply chain. Susan Brownlow speaks about her work with organisations making in-roads into worker welfare overseas, embedding their social responsibility into their very value chain and commercialism.

Final Thoughts

The historic benefits seen when organisations do adopt a sustainability-led model strengthens the case for enabling values to steer operations. But as we know, values are only worth as much as the meaningful actions behind them - and the bare minimum simply isn't enough.

Whether you're a business leader concerned with the efficacy of your sustainability model, or a freelancer seeing more complex PR needs as a result, there could be a simpler way to get started:

  1. listen
  2. assess
  3. learn
  4. plan

And importantly: collaborate. In every sense of the word.