Environmental Sustainability

Earning love and loyalty through sustainability investment

Climate & agriculture

The first in a three-part series of insights for organizations looking to scale the impact of their investments in sustainability. Here, we explore the mismatch between company investment in sustainability and the benefits being reaped. Some short- and long-term pivots can help sustainability-focused companies earn love and loyalty from customers and partners. 

Modern efforts in sustainability and corporate social responsibility may have their genesis in a picturesque Victorian village ten miles west of Leeds, England. Here, in the early 1850’s, the philanthropist and industrialist Sir Titus Salt completed his textile mill – Salt's Mill – and continued building homes, bathhouses, a hospital, and churches to establish a ‘model community’ designed to provide a safe, healthy, equitable place to live for those working in the mill. This pattern continued with other industrialists sensitized to the poor living conditions of workers – the Cadbury, Lever (of Unilever fame), and Tata families each making strides and evolving what it meant for companies to be stewards of the land and people. 

Since then, the number of brands solving sustainability challenges has sounded an ever-louder drumbeat. The 1990s and early 2000s galvanized companies’ roles in sustainable practices with economic principles of the ‘triple bottom line’ and the establishment of the UN Global Compact, Fairtrade labels, and Forestry and Marine Conservancy consortia. As we begin the 2020s, we find many companies investing thoughtfully and deeply in sustainability, and no small number of campaigns to both educate and activate the public. There is a need to accelerate brands’ work on sustainability, especially as climate and natural resource forecasts become more dire. Some of this work needs to happen in actual investment – but in many cases, brands need to be better and smarter communicators.  

Let’s look at three principles of practice for sustainability communicators within companies and organizations: 

  1. Depth. The extent to which sustainability is embedded in culture and products.
  2. Alignment. Defining desired outcomes and aligning with other fellow travelers.  
  3. Narrative. Purposeful, precise storytelling to pay off investments made in sustainability.  

Depth. It’s widely known that customers – consumers and businesses alike – prioritize sustainable practices as a reason to buy. They’ll reward business to companies who make meaningful investment in sourcing sustainably-harvested goods, who are carbon-neutral, who take important steps in slowing climate change. Even global brand favorites can’t operate in an eco-agnostic way without paying the price at the register. Many Fortune 1000 companies have public commitments around sustainability – but too often those commitments remain at the corporate brand level, without truly becoming embedded in culture and products/solutions. For one of our clients, a Fortune 50 technology company, at first glance, the business put high value on sustainable practices. After all, they had named a Chief Sustainability Officer, built a corporate website section dedicated to social good and sustainable practices, and produced feel-good content (in their annual report) around UN SDG alignment (to be discussed later!). However, going even one level deep into product strategy, any evidence of sustainable business practices at the product-level evaporated. The top-level brand story of sustainability failed to go deep into company culture and product strategy, leaving large swaths of untouched territory. They were talking-the-talk, but not doing a great job walking-the-walk. We’ll provide our take on how companies who find themselves in the same dilemma can course-correct.  

Alignment. In some early brand work for a major foundation, our beloved-but-exacting client exclaimed, ‘You’re making me work too hard!’ - indicating that we were getting too clever, too far from the milieu of audience understanding. This is a common misstep for creative campaigns, business strategy, and even for building coalitions and consensus among sustainability-minded audiences. In an audit of over twenty Fortune 100 companies, while all had similar taxonomies for talking about sustainability – only half aligned around common standards for measuring outcomes and successes. In those cases, the United Nations Strategic Development Goals (SDGs) were the shared benchmark for readouts on sustainability. The other half had their own cogent frameworks, but the absence of an accepted model for investment and outcomes left the audience unclear how to assess who was getting results, and who wasn’t. Although UN SDGs are not the only relevant framework, the idea of looking to your left and your right, and referencing peers and competitors makes sense. Carving out unique space for the ways you invest in sustainability is important. But aligning to shared themes of focus and vision signals collaboration and broader cooperation, rather than a heads-down ‘this is how we do it’ approach implies. 

Narrative. In most marketing efforts, smart companies have honed skills to find customers, craft audience- and channel-relevant messages, and measure results for optimization. Yet because sustainability still has the ‘this can’t sound like marketing’ label on it, companies struggle to apply the same creativity and rigor in how they talk about these important efforts. For instance, most annual reports and thought papers for sustainability are written in one voice for one audience. That voice tends to flow across brand-owned channels and executive channels without any tuning. There is rarely paid media put against these efforts, nor is there work done to understand the various constituencies and learn what resonates with them. With audience understanding, the important work of narrative development can begin. For a company focused on sourcing raw materials from eco-friendly sources, once we understand consumers care about a portion of that story, while media another, and policy makers yet another, we can iterate on narratives and have channels and executives deliver that narrative where it makes the most sense. We’ll cover these channel decisions and voices in another post, but important heuristics include: 

  • Consumers are looking for long-term vision and short-term impact. And increasingly, consumer channels like Instagram and Tiktok have massive audiences of social-impact-minded consumers who are using those channels to engage and activate in the short term. 
  • Executives have more flexibility – more brand elasticity, you might say – than the corporate brand in terms of sharing content and taking positions. They also have the potential and permission for more authenticity than a brand itself does. 
  • Brands can play an insider game when it comes to sustainability. Finding, engaging, and influencing VIPs – policymakers, academics, true influencers – is art and science. And it’s one accomplished through careful curation and content planning, and then delivering at the right time, through the right channel, by the right person.   

So, for a company focused on sustainability, coming up with a game plan for these principles requires both a short- and a long-view. Questions to ask for short-term action include: 

  • How deeply is sustainability embedded in our company? Do I find it prioritized in our employee culture? In our products / solutions?
  • Where do we tell the stories of our sustainability focus? Is there a mismatch between what we do and what we say?
  • Is the language we use to talk about our sustainability work familiar? Is it in the same lexicon as other brands? Are we making people ‘work too hard’?
  • Is our messaging around sustainability one-size-fits-all? Or is it clear we use each channel to its advantage, and make good use of our brand and executive voices? 

Our work answering these questions for clients has shown there are short-term activities and results that can be gained within 6-8 weeks. For longer-term work, it’s important take a longitudinal approach to sustainability. Clients looking ahead can embed sustainability goals into product strategy, human resource strategy, and overall marketing planning. They can assess the various frameworks for activating their sustainability programs (e.g. UN SDGs) and can find partners with similar goals, as well as unique territory to own. 

As companies take on these short- and long-term goals, they’ll be better able to match the brand benefits of sustainability investment with the actual investments they make. Ratios of ‘brand love’ to impact investment flip – moving from fractional benefits to fully-realized benefits. Customers are more loyal. Partners are aligned. Policymakers are aware. And most importantly, our planet gets incremental help in being a place for all to thrive.  

Learn more about how Formative drives impact for social good and purpose-driven brands.

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