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Seeing Is Believing: The Need for Better Sustainability Communications

Published: Wednesday, January 30, 2013

This is the third post in a three-part series, inspired by the 2012 Tork Report: The Sustainability Gap, which explores the disparity between consumer expectations and corporate reporting and performance in Sustainability.

Doing good is no longer good enough. It used to be enough for corporations to set sustainability goals, work toward achieving them, and maybe publish a glossy report about their efforts. It didn't matter if no one could find or understand the report. It matters now.

Show and tell

Many companies have made strong sustainability commitments and are making great strides in their efforts. But they aren't necessarily getting the response they expected. The Tork Report suggests that "companies are starting to question if consumers are giving them proper credit for (their sustainability) initiatives". At the same time, consumers have increasingly higher expectations for both performance and reporting. Overcoming this gap between consumer perception and reality is critical.

We can hear the refrains of "But we published a report!" That's not good enough. A 2012 study by Cone Communications found that 63 percent of consumers don't know where to find information about a company's initiatives and 55 percent don't understand the impact they are having when buying a product from a company that says it is socially responsible.

In an increasingly complex world, one full of distractions, it's imperative to break through the noise and communicate what matters clearly, concisely and transparently. Corporations now have more than an obligation to publish their sustainability efforts; they have an obligation to make sure that the information lands squarely in the hands of consumers in a way that they can understand it. Put more simply, if consumers don't "get it" then companies have an obligation to make sure that they do.

Live and breathe

A 2012 Brandlogic report, Keys to Sustainability Leadership, suggests that sustainability leaders "understand that this is not merely a reporting exercise, though full and transparent disclosure is essential. Rather, leaders are successfully integrating sustainability themes into their corporate stories, mission, vision and values and in many cases, directly into their brand and customer value propositions. Companies that display true leadership in this emerging field are positioning themselves to excel in an increasingly challenging environment. They are taking the high ground, both internally by building sustainability into the business and externally by informing the world about their efforts." In other words, they live and breathe their sustainability efforts. It's not merely a silo within the organization; it permeates their entire culture.

The report adds that companies with high actual sustainability performance but trailing perception, those who aren't doing a good job of informing the world, have "the potential to secure unrealized ROI by leveraging operational excellence through improved communications". It appears that consumers agree. The Cone report found that 82 percent of consumers are more likely to purchase a product that clearly demonstrates the results of its CSR initiatives than one that does not and 40 percent will not purchase a company's products or services if it doesn't communicate the results of its CSR initiatives.

Perception and Reality

In a recent Guardian Sustainable Business article, Julia Hailes, the author of The Green Consumer Guide, says brands need to be more passionate about effecting change. "A company that I was recently talking to kept saying 'We want to be humble'. I said: 'Sod being humble. You want to be authoritative and be out there.' So you see, there's a reticence to lead and take up the challenge."

To close the Performance Perception-Reality Gap, companies need to do more than just report. They need to tell stories about their sustainability efforts that engage consumers at an emotional level and help them understand why sustainability should matter to them. In FastCo.EXIST, Sarah Krasley says that a successful approach has a "beautiful humanism and a fun metaphor that's easy to understand, punctuated with a "We can do it!" call to action". And we can do it - create a sustainable future - if we work together - inside and out.

Images courtesy of flickr