Your Roadmap for Effective Sustainability Communications: Three Vs Methodology Drives Awareness, Credibility

Guest blog by Nancy Himmelfarb, NJH Sustainability Consulting

Pop star Justin Bieber asks “What do you mean?”

Consumers ask the same question when they see and hear corporate sustainability communications that are generic and uncompelling or misleading and incomplete.

It’s that consumer confusion that prompted me to look closely at pain points experienced by brands and to create the three Vs of sustainability communication™.

This article seeks to introduce sustainability communicators to this methodology. Once you’ve read this post, free free to download complimentary communications checklists to help you implement the communications framework in your organization.

LEARN MORE: DOWNLOAD CHECKLISTS

Though most businesses nowadays understand my first V -- Value (value, or benefits, of sustainability to their businesses), they struggle with the second and third Vs -- Viewpoint and Vehicles.

Let’s examine both Vs to show you how to adopt a compelling sustainability Viewpoint and effective communication Vehicles for your business:

Developing a Compelling Sustainability Viewpoint

Think of your Viewpoint as an authentic statement of how sustainability relates to your specific business. It is your way to tell everyone why and how your business is responsible. Your Viewpoint should do one of two things (or both, ideally!):

1.Reduce barriers: Reduce consumer confusion around sustainability by describing positive values and impacts of buying your products; and

2.Create benefits: Create an emotional connection by helping your customers feel they are contributing to a better world and are part of a solution.

Many companies, both public and private, adopt a sustainability viewpoint related to how they produce their products. Nike Better World is “making athletes faster, stronger, better with less impact;” Epic Burger makes “A More Mindful Burger;” and Krochet Kids empowers women to rise above poverty.

Some companies paint a global vision that is rooted in a sustainable sourcing story (e.g., Chipotle “cultivating a better world” through “food with integrity”) or one that is holistic and comprehensive (e.g., Unilever’s “sustainable living plan”).

Still other companies talk about the need to ensure a reliable, long-term source of raw materials (note the recent focus on deforestation and social injustices associated with palm oil production). Or, companies highlight their support for local communities. Boise Paper talks about its Paper with Purpose®: Live | Work | Connect, and Kellogg describes its training of women who are smallholder farmers in its supply chain. Each of these examples projects a compelling and memorable sustainability viewpoint that reduces confusion, creates an emotional connection, or both.

Whatever you choose as a sustainability viewpoint, do not use “our company is sustainable” or “our products are sustainable.” Differentiate your company with a distinct and compelling statement of how and why sustainability matters to your business and consumers.

Developing Effective Vehicles for Your Sustainability Viewpoint

Appropriate Vehicles are the final component of your effective sustainability communications.

Your objective here is to engage consumers and others repeatedly with understandable, truthful messages that create conversation. Messaging should be designed to convince all of your key stakeholders that your company is responsible and trustworthy on sustainability; they should want to join you in your sustainability work.

Companies that are good communicators succeed in bringing their sustainability viewpoint to life for their many stakeholders.

They use several vehicles, never relying on only one. They focus on their website, of course, but they also use social media campaigns, byline placements in online and print media, speaking engagements, on-pack messaging, sustainability reports, partnerships with NGOs, appropriate ecolabels, and employee volunteerism. They highlight stories of all kinds, providing authentic, behind-the-scenes views of production of their products and/or the many people affected by their businesses.

As long as a communication vehicle resonates with you and your employees – the ambassadors of your sustainability viewpoint – try it out. Just be sure that each communication vehicle reflects your sustainability viewpoint in an obvious and clear way.

Good corporate communicators also look for opportunities to repeat their sustainability messages over and over – to create and reinforce emotional connections with their brands and products. The Montreal-based paper manufacturer Domtar, for example, created and distributed 18 distinct stories in multiple formats from its 2015 sustainability report, increasing the opportunity for online sharing and engagement around the content. 

Another master of repeat messaging, Nike, has come a very long way since it faced widespread criticisms of sweatshop labor. The company is now considered a hero of corporate responsibility. Transparency and compelling messaging, such as the Making of Making campaign, are a big reason for this shift in public perception. Nike uses creative videos and apps to bring to life its Materials Sustainability Index. Who wouldn’t prefer to watch engaging media than read the text of the company’s sourcing requirements? The videos and apps are certainly more memorable too. Best of all, they are conversation-starters: they invite two-way conversation with the company and conversation with friends, family, etc.

Companies often look to third-party sustainability certifications and related ecolabels as communication vehicles. Not all certifications are created equal, however, so you should do your homework before deciding whether to seek certification and before deciding which certification to choose. Remember too that a certification never engages consumers and others in the ways that authentic stories engage them. Think of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (now Keurig Green Mountain). The Fair Trade Certified label on their coffee products did not create a compelling connection between sustainability and the purchase drivers of coffee (taste and quality), but the 2012 “Great Coffee, Good Vibes, Pass It On” campaign did. The company partnered with musicians and reached 150 million consumers with the message of “[b]etter quality coffee for you; better quality life for farmers.”

Finally, remember that sustainability communications are only effective if they have substance. No greenwashing. You must be prepared to be transparent about your sustainability viewpoint and any related performance commitments. This means that, when things go wrong, you must own up to the failures.

Chipotle has had its share of problems with food quality lately, but I also see Chipotle as a company that stands behind its “food with integrity” platform time and again. Chipotle did not sell carnitas in one-third of its stores for ten months last year, because the company discovered that one of its pork suppliers had violated its animal welfare standards. The decision to take this financial hit obviously was a hard one for Chipotle, but transparency engenders goodwill and trust, which are invaluable for every company.

Sustainability is good – good for your business and other businesses, good for people, and good for the planet. So, tell people what you’re doing. Use the three Vs framework to develop a compelling sustainability viewpoint and effective communication vehicles.

LEARN MORE: DOWNLOAD CHECKLISTS

(About the author: Nancy Himmelfarb is Principal of NJH Sustainability Consulting. Based in Chicago, Himmelfarb helps companies create and leverage sustainable business strategies, by leveraging a unique combination of business, legal, and sustainability expertise and experience.)