Sustainability - How to talk the talk and walk the walk

The green movement is taking the world by storm. From Extinction Rebellion to Greta Thunberg, consumers now do not only expect, but demand, that corporations do better by the planet.

The general sentiment is that sustainability hasn’t been high enough on the corporate agenda and that half-hearted commitments just won’t do. They’re too slow or not ambitious enough. So, when financial services firm Legal & General warned 500 companies to do more to tackle climate change or risk being ‘named and shamed’ it only fuelled the fire.

Talking the talk and walking the walk are different things entirely. Take plastic recycling for example. Companies across all sectors compete to get what little is being recycled to feed back into their supply chain, so that they do not have to produce as much virgin plastic. It takes so many cogs to make that machine work. You need consumers to recycle. You need local councils to have the right infrastructure in place to collect and break down plastic components. And finally, you need businesses to have the right technology to turn these back into consumable products.

Not so simple then… so, what are the obstacles standing in the way?

Lack of infrastructure and technology at scale

Over the last year there has been a surge of sustainability-focused brand campaigns from companies keen to communicate their global environmental credentials. This trend is only set to grow as consumer and investor scrutiny increases. But behind the ambitious brand sustainability plans and their plethora of commitments lie myriad challenges that corporations and brands are trying to solve. Challenges that are bigger than the companies trying to solve them, and challenges which require a cross-industry, cross-government, united front - technology and infrastructure on a global scale.

Take eliminating plastic packaging waste as an example. It’s true, the solution to combat this exists already. The process of a circular economy. Sounds easy, but to achieve this fully circular process or closed-loop economy requires a ‘space race’ level of technological innovation and advancement in all areas of raw materials, design, production, distribution, consumption, collection and recycling. And it doesn’t end there either. The second half of the problem is infrastructure. Brands are still somewhat at the mercy of local governments and municipalities to establish a more advanced recycling and collection infrastructure in order to fully realise their ambitious targets.

This is very much the reality across the board. Tech and infrastructure issues permeate every sector. The ‘quick wins’, so to speak, have now been implemented as much as possible, so the game is moving to the stage of bringing proof of concept technology into the real world, and collaborating with governments to upscale critical infrastructure.

Innovation is key even if it’s not global reality yet

With the current influx of sustainability focused brand campaigns flooding our TV screens, there is a growing risk that people could soon become desensitised, or worse, indifferent, towards the subject. An effective technique to keep people engaged with the topic is to shift the narrative away from passive brand commitments and towards the cutting-edge innovation that is taking place.

Using innovation as the mechanism to discuss sustainability - even if in practice the solutions are far away from becoming a global reality - immediately transforms the subject from being overwhelming to optimistic. It gives people a sense of hope that progress is being made, and an implied control over their lives knowing that the products they consume are continuously being made to be more sustainable.

When you also consider the unprecedented levels of cross-industry collaboration taking place to drive innovation at scale, suddenly the topic feels much more about possibility and advancement than an intangible threat to the future.

Now, that’s not to say brands shouldn’t engage with consumers around the challenges being faced - on the contrary. By discussing the innovations in this space, it invites them into the conversation and allows consumers to understand the ‘real’ game in play and its fundamental challenges.

Engaging with consumers in these areas, even if they’re far away from becoming a global reality, arguably has two impacts.

Firstly, it provides audiences with a deeper level of understanding and therefore awareness of the subject and its key challenges. Secondly, it reveals the mindset and spirit of brands and organisations trying to solve it which is a far more effective way to be credible. It opens the conversation up and demystifies the subject matter. It speaks to positive intent and possibility. Ultimately innovation is a major precursor to solving this problem. Innovation can shape our lifestyles - from the products we consume, how we consume them and who makes them.

Present complex issues in a creative way

Presenting complex issues to consumers is no easy task. The key is to do it in a creative way but communicate that there isn’t a silver bullet solution. Innovations within sustainability will be a process of continuous evolution so that we do not create a new set of problems further down the line.

In that vein, corporations always need to balance their blue-sky thinking with tangible action. Commitments to achieve a target are great, but what are the specific actions a brand is taking to get there, and most importantly, what’s the mindset driving it? People generally empathise with the fact these changes can’t be made overnight, but they do want to see progress from brands on these topics and believe they actually care. Often, it’s the mindset which drives the brands making changes that people can align and identify with, especially if it’s aspirational.

And also, don’t forget to be human. Don’t miss the opportunity to move people. Corporate doesn’t have to feel corporate, and sustainability doesn’t mean always having to only address the technical. Traditional 2D infographics and green stock imagery is an immediate barrier to authentic storytelling. Using a mixture of media and creative approaches provides audiences with different entry points into the subjects. It also allows brands to more seamlessly navigate between the complex nuances of each stage of the educate, engage and empower journey. People will respond to something if it’s meaningful, evoking a certain tone, mood or feeling. Bringing an advertising calibre to sustainability to move people then becomes the goal. Whether it is by using creative tech or doc-style imagery and content they feel respond to the message better if it’s given to them in a progressive aspirational but straight-talking way.

It’s not about money

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not about money. The challenges around deploying green solutions at scale are colossal precisely because we lack the necessary infrastructure and technology at scale. Nevertheless, over half (55%) of consumers believe brands can make more of a difference than governments. The way they position themselves from a communications perspective then becomes critical. How can they be honest, balancing ambitious plans with pragmatic timelines without coming under fire from consumers and other stakeholders? Without the right balance of creativity, they run the risk of becoming white noise.

Written by Megan Leppan, tounder of communications agency Raised by Wolves