Green goes mainstream

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Nicolaj Egerod
Account Director – Hill & Knowlton Copenhagen

Nicolaj Egerod of H&K Copenhagen argues that while a sustainability communications strategy will no longer earn business credits, communicating sustainable innovation will help drive business.

Here in Copenhagen we are all preparing to host a global showdown on climate change when the UN conference on climate change (COP15) kicks off on December 7. But not until December 17, when the heads of state start to arrive, will we know if this gathering will result in an ambitious global agreement or just the usual empty phrases.

We Danes will be hoping for the best and residents of Copenhagen are gearing up for two weeks when the eyes of the world will be on our capital city. And it seems a good part of that world is coming to see for itself. Since summer, most hotels have been fully booked and a private accomodation market is opening up for the two weeks the conference takes place. As I live close to the airport I am considering renting out a room to the highest bidder!

In truth, basic logistics are really becoming a main concern for clients attending even part of the COP15. In addition to negotiating team representatives from more than 170 states, thousands of other delegates, 3000 journalists, and an unknown number of grass root activists, the COP15 will see one of the largest contingents of CEOs and senior management representatives, from across sectors, congregate in one place.

Many will be there to lobby the decisions-makers, but most will be there with the understanding that addressing the sustainability issue is integral to the future success of their business.

Sustainable innovation will drive business

Businesses will come to Copenhagen because to an increasing extent customers, investors, and employees want them to deliver on sustainability. By being in Copenhagen in December they are showing their commitment and demonstrating that they have understood the message and are acting upon it. That message is: “We want you to think sustainability into your business model if you want us to buy your products, invest our money or work for you.”

And for businesses that can deliver on this message, through innovative sustainable business solutions both internally and externally, and are able to communicate this properly to their stakeholders, there is a huge potential to drive brand recognition and business. Their presence also demonstrates that sustainability has moved away from being a symbolic gesture, to having a direct influence on sales and products and ultimately, the bottom line.

Communicating real sustainability

The challenge for most us is how to communicate our efforts to be a sustainable business when we are not a new source of CO2 free energy nor a green tech company promising to save the world by revolutionizing the way we live.

First and foremost, the bar on communicating sustainability is being raised as a consequence of sustainability moving from being symbolic to being fully integrated in the business. It is no longer enough to show a well intentioned sustainability strategy and periodic progress reports.

More and more, the strategy on sustainability is considered a license to operate but not a license to talk. With more companies adopting sustainability practices such as supporting NGOs, reducing energy consumption and recycling, the ability to use this as a point of differentiation has been diluted.

Many communications departments already struggle with how to develop a strategic approach to communicating sustainability, taking it away from classical public relations and branding, to being integrated in all corporate communications including business development, stakeholder relations and partnerships. But increasingly the challenge for all business is to be able to rethink whole aspects of their operating model, develop genuine sustainable business innovation and then communicate that.

Copenhagen will showcase many groundbreaking examples of communication on behalf of sustainable businesses, but also highlight those that are getting it wrong and communicating the communications strategy as a separate entity to the business itself.  As Kermit said: it’s not easy being green.

This December’s Copenhagen conference may come to be remembered in communication terms as a turning point for business, when using sustainability as a means to drive business and brand, moved from the stands and onto the playing field.

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