Sustainability reloaded: Economy trumps Environment

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Joshua Reynolds
Worldwide director Technology Practice – Hill & Knowlton

About 18 months ago the ruling mantra was, “You can save the planet without killing the economy!”  But in the winter of 2008, as the global economy went on life support, that argument lost its appeal. Now, in the next wave of sustainability communications, the battle cry has evolved: “You can save the economy without killing the planet!”

The distinction is subtle, but the implications are enormous.  In any sustainability discussion there are multiple perspectives to honor: capitalist, environmentalist, industrialist, technologist, regulatory, even, or perhaps especially, a consumer advocacy angle.  Effective communication around sustainability needs to take them all into account, but ultimately one perspective emerges as dominant.  So when the environmentalist movement went mainstream with help from mass media, such as Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth,” and as sustainability took center stage in political contests worldwide, the concern that trumped all others was “Save the planet” and the corollary to that was, “… and the money will follow.”

But as the threat of Climate Crisis gave way to more immediate, tangible threats – unemployment, the erosion of investments and life savings, delayed retirement and worse – the economy trumped all other considerations in the sustainability discussion, and a new meaning of the word emerged: economic sustainability.

So when assessing the right approach to any sustainability initiative, it’s helpful first to identify the various motives at work among your constituents.  Second, identify your own organization’s motives. Third, build an economic component into your sustainability communications – for at least as long as the global economic crisis continues.

The following gives you an idea for some of the most common paradigms and the communications opportunities and risks associated with each:

  • OPERATIONAL: “I need to cut costs & reconfigure my operations.”
    • PR emphasis: Corporate communications, IR and financial communications, executive platforms and branding.
    • Opportunity: Your organization can be positioned as leaner, smarter and more competitive, as well as greener.
    • Risk: Make sure your cuts are not seen as impeding your ability to deliver on your brand promises.
  • REGULATORY: “I need to comply with, or influence, industry standards & regulations.”
    • PR emphasis: Public affairs, with close collaboration with consumer PR and consumer activist groups and grass roots environmentalist outreach.
    • Opportunity: Demonstrate compliance and influence the regulatory framework.
    • Risk: Make sure you address the cost of compliance, and address the delta between what you’re legally obligated to do vs. what your customers would expect you to do.
  • BRAND-DRIVEN: “I need to boost my corporate reputation and brand as ‘sustainable.’”
    • PR emphasis: Marketing and communications, advertising, and digital communications.
    • Opportunity: Demonstrate how your “green” initiatives benefit your customers, employees and shareholders economically as well as environmentally.
    • Risk: Make sure you’re really living the sustainable brand, and confer with operations for where your practices could draw environmental criticism.
  • SALES- and RECRUITMENT-DRIVEN: “I need to attract environmentally motivated customers, investors, and employees.” (close cousin of the brand-driven exercise.)
    • PR emphasis: Product PR, internal communications, and/or IR, usually in an isolated silo. Best practice is to coordinate with other corporate communications disciplines, as well.
    • Opportunity: Create buzz among customers, employees and investors around your long-term sustainability both economically and environmentally.
    • Risk: Again, make sure you’re living the brand. And make sure not to conduct sustainability campaigns in a silo – involve the broader marketing and PR teams within your organization as well.
  • FINANCIAL: “I need to promote my new sustainable business model.”
    • PR emphasis: Financial communications, with close collaboration with industry analyst relations, IR, the office of strategy, and operations / supply chain teams.
    • Opportunity: Raise the bar for sustainability best practices in your industry, with particular emphasis on how long-term OpEx is reduced in addition to near-term CapEx improvements.
    • Risk: Don’t attempt to “greenwash” what is essentially a financial decision, but do be confident in pointing out tangible, genuine environmental benefits of your business model.
  • TECHNOLOGICAL: “I need to promote a Clean Tech offering that contributes to sustainability.”
    • PR emphasis: Product PR, tech or trade media, industry analyst relations and digital communications.
    • Opportunity: Develop a position as a transformative or disruptive force in your industry, but be sure to market to trends of “inevitability.” It is better to prepare the world to deal with inevitable change than to try to prove how your company alone will change the world.
    • Risk: Don’t fall prey to hype and technological infatuation. A plain-spoken promise you can deliver on near-term trumps technological hyperbole that may never come to fruition.

The problem, of course, is that the above perspectives – operations, regulations, brand, sales, finance and technology – usually fall into organizational silos, which prevent a company from taking a 360-degree view of their sustainability platform. The progressive approach is for the Chief Sustainability Officer, if one exists, to be in touch with all of these functions as they put their sustainability plan into place, which can then be communicated effectively. Absent the CSO, it falls to the corporate communications function to interrogate and integrate each of these perspectives into a sustainability communications program that speaks with one voice to multiple audiences.

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