When everyone’s talking and no one is listening: The corporate cry for sustainability communication
As more companies realize that transitioning to sustainable business models is their “license to operate” in the business landscape, investments in key ESG issues are on the rise. A recent report by the International Development Corporation predicts that investments in sustainability will reach a whopping $158 billion by 2025 — a five-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 32.3%.
These investments are underleveraged if companies do not effectively communicate their efforts to their stakeholders — starting with their employees. To transition to a sustainable business model in quick order requires embedding sustainability into corporate DNA. This can only happen if the entire workforce of a company develops a sense of “sustainability ownership” motivating them to engage in sustainable behaviors.
The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred the Great Reshuffle in which millions of employees have left their jobs in search of flexibility and greater purpose. As such, sustainability itself has become both the goal and the solution. The sustainability movement is a beacon of hope to improve life for ALL stakeholders and in doing so, provides the job satisfaction that employees have lacked. But it all starts with employees knowing what their companies are doing in the realm of sustainability.
A recent survey of US employees that I conducted in collaboration with the Harris Poll showed that a mere 30% of employees felt sustainability efforts were apparent in their company. This is not good news. The Great Reshuffle has demonstrated that the desire to “do good” already exists within job-seekers. Thus, the challenge is not one of willingness but of effective and genuine communication. The onus is on the organization to effectively communicate its sustainability initiatives to drive employee engagement. This blog is a guide to the process of embedding sustainability into the culture of an organization more efficiently and more thoroughly by simplifying the communication process used to garner employee support and enthusiasm.
What to communicate?
The single most important thing for a firm to communicate is its purpose, its “raison d’etre” or the answer to the all-important question of why we do what we do, the starting point to transitioning to a sustainable business model. Do we sell cars or provide mobility? Do we sell soap or save lives? These are important questions as firms pivot from being shareholder to stakeholder centric. Employees find greater job meaning in firms that are purpose-driven. As I heard from an employee who sells antibacterial soap, “I would rather die thinking that I have been saving lives rather than selling soap all my life”. Although lately many firms have jumped on the purpose bandwagon, far fewer have successfully cascaded it throughout the organization. The only way to achieve this is for firms to communicate credibly and incessantly — from internal media all the way to luncheons, onboarding, sustainability ambassadors and managers. The CEO and C-suite must lead by example — as Unilever ex-CEO Paul Polman told me, “employees don’t hear what I say, they observe what I do.”
Communicating purpose is necessary but is by no means sufficient. Alongside, a firm must communicate a set of chosen goals within the sustainability sphere. Why just a few goals? Because, if you don’t focus, nothing gets done. Having a few concrete, “material” targets give employees a deeper understanding of the goals and how to address them, thereby fostering ownership and triggering sustainability behaviors.
In tandem with goals and targets is the corresponding progress made by the company. Keeping employees apprised of the progress demystifies progress and serves as motivational fodder to achieve more. This is where an ESG dashboard that displays progress on key metrics like CO2 emissions, water usage, waste, or fatalities can serve as a vivid reminder of the tasks at hand. When sustainability successes are celebrated within the company culture or when shortfalls are met with rallying cries of “we must do better”, employees realize that the topic is taken seriously by the entire organization which acts as another nudge to assume ownership.
How to Communicate
The ability of any initiative to foster sustained engagement is dependent on how its messaging resonates with the audience. The best way to do that is to create a clear plan of communication. What is the message? How will it be conveyed? Who are the messengers? How often will it be revisited and in what manner?
Keep the message clear and concise. Overwhelmingly, I hear from organizations that employees want simple, “dumb it down” messaging, especially when dealing with abstract concepts like greenhouse gas emissions. At its core, effective communication minimizes the effort it takes the listener to receive the message. Using too many words or the wrong words can at best lower interest levels and at worst convey a sense of exclusivity that is not inherently sustainable. Eliminating the jargon in favor of easily digestible messaging prevents the immediate rejection of fledgling sustainability initiatives and paves the way to reflection and engagement.
Setting smaller, concrete goals can provide talking points that entrench sustainability deeper into the minds of employees. Saturating the workplace with sustainable practices relies on the ability to generate self-ownership in its working body. When the sustainability mindset is normalized to such a degree that it becomes second nature, organizations are better equipped to tackle larger, more ambitious environmental goals.
One need only look to Unilever as a real-life example. In an employee survey, 76% of Unilever employees stated that they feel their work role enabled them to contribute to the company’s sustainability goals. Employees truly felt that their individual, day-to-day actions were the driving force behind the company’s greater goals. Intersecting an organization’s goals and actions with people, planet, and profit is a quintessential part of driving that “bigger than oneself” component that employees are seeking in the workplace today.
As former Unilever CEO, Paul Polman, and I mentioned in our Stanford Social Innovation Review article, employees use a cost-benefit heuristic to engage in sustainability initiatives. When the alignment between personal and corporate values are revealed via the company’s engagement in sustainability, employees receive an identity benefit. Thus, it is vital that the emphasis placed on sustainability by an organization is communicated in such a way that the employee is reminded of the alignment of the company’s values and their own.
One might say, rather than “the boy who cried wolf”, we are living in an era of “the company who cried green”. Employees will not be duped if the corporate action is not genuine. Greenwashing, from false claims of the recyclability of a product to misleading climate advertisements, only leads to less employee buy-in. Token gestures like these are a way to follow the trends of the market rather than true sustainability. For a company to go beyond perceptions of greenwashing, it must show genuine progress against its material goals.
Eventually, false claims and half-hearted commitments come to light, and when they do, along comes a sense that stakeholders have been duped. If a company “cries green” too many times, its reputation, as it is viewed in the eyes of employees who truly value sustainability, could take a dive.
Honesty and humility go a long way in driving the sense that we are all on the same team. There is no chance of creating a sustainable business economy without first acknowledging which current practices are harmful, to whom they are harmful, and in what manner. Take the popular “fast furniture” brand, IKEA, for example. IKEA has transitioned 99% of its wood source to recycled or FSC Certified lumber, and in doing so, the company has acknowledged that its previous supply chain was exploitative and unethical. The communication of the wrongdoing is equally as important as that of the initiative itself to build a foundation of trust with employees.
To be successful means there must be some benchmark of measurement used to determine how far along a company has advanced in its sustainability goals. Whether that is a measure of emissions, waste or fatalities, it is important to communicate what you measure to allow employees to see that their ideas, actions, and contributions are recognized. Whether an organization has taken big or small steps, wins must be recognized as such. If the company meets a sustainability target, spreading the word of this success breeds more success.
Think of the state of your inbox right now. If you received an email from HR touting the company’s newest sustainability policies, how much time and effort would you spend to read and digest the information? Likely, not as much as you would spend if your boss knocked on the door of your office to have a conversation.
Overwhelmingly, employees value face-to-face communication when it comes to environmental issues. Creating a space conducive to open conversations around the gray areas of sustainability can unite employees behind a common front. If employees feel their voices are heard, it empowers their sustained commitment and contributions to sustainability. Then you are well on your way to sustainable decision making becoming a point of reflection in individual workdays.
That’s not to say that verbal conversations are the only way to communicate the message. Communication can and must be nonverbal as well to have greater impact. Most importantly, an organization must find a way to bring sustainability issues into the employee’s everyday environment. A reminder about conscientious water use posted above the sink in an office kitchen is internalized, consciously or not, by every individual who uses that sink. Small actions like these are catalysts for larger changes in the world.
A top-down approach to communicating sustainability — starting with the CEO — is vital for long-term success. Many companies have already appointed leaders who are directly responsible for corporate sustainability. Since the advent of the first Chief Sustainability Officer in 2004 (Linda Fisher of DuPont), the CSO role has become commonplace in the business world. There is no doubt that this strategy for accountability is effective. In fact, evidence suggests that employees take into account both the behavior of their supervisors and the perspective of fellow employees in their willingness to buy into initiatives.
It is important to note that communication and training efforts that solely focus on managerial staff can overlook the larger working body of an organization. Sustainability that begins at the top levels of management must eventually take root in all levels of an organization (laterally and longitudinally) or face a lack of engagement that could spell disaster for long-term success. Sustainability champions, representatives from every level who are responsible for championing the cause within their own microcosms are key. The drive of the champion to fight the uphill battle of corporate sustainability can generate conversations and creative problem-solving.
Revisiting and Reinforcing
Recognize that corporate sustainability is continuous; goals may be reevaluated over time with the accumulation of information and the shifting needs of the planet and the people. In other words, sustainability initiatives are not one-meeting plans, they are an iterative process that is not possible without communication.
The more frequently sustainability conversations are encouraged in an organization, the more conspicuous they become. Thus, messages conveyed to employees must be clear, constant, and consistent with organizational culture. Weekly or daily communications to maintain sustainable operations are more effective than quarterly or annual meetings where the message can be quickly overlooked.
Sustainability must be held as a standard of operation from day one. As soon as an employee is hired, train them in sustainability and familiarize them with the company’s behavioral standards and values. This sets the tone that ethical operations within the means of the planet is the duty of all employees, all the time. In many cases, we fail to recognize the privilege inherent in the ability to distance oneself from the climate crisis. As long as the corporation and the individual withdraw from accountability, the sustainability imperative will fail to generate the level of interest and support that is vital to see true and lasting change.
An Ongoing Process
In summary, effective sustainability communication relies on a heady mix of clarity, managerial commitment, transparency, and consistency. The absence of even one of these tenets can significantly handicap the potency of sustainability within an organization’s culture. A culture that does not give employees space for autonomy, where ideas cannot be freely shared, and where employees are not valued as individuals will never be conducive to effective inter-organizational sustainability communication.
If employees do not feel like their ideas or actions are valued or supported, enthusiasm for sustainability will only diminish over time. Embracing the challenge and coming at the problem with continued vigor will lay the groundwork of an organization that has sustainability embedded in its core.
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Volume 2, Number 6. Copyright © CB Bhattacharya, 2022. All rights reserved. Research assistance for this blog was provided by Nathan Dobb and Esmee de Cortie.
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