From transparency to sharing the positive, these seven guidelines can improve sustainability communications – and help the world's youth be heard. Image: REUTERS/Tom Nicholson
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- The most important thing you can do to fight climate change is to talk about it, but why is sustainability communication so hard?
- Misinformation, mistrust and a lack of immediate benefits to the audience all make it a challenge to successfully communicate sustainability.
- From transparency to sharing the positive, these seven guidelines can improve sustainability communications – and help the world's youth be heard.
In order to communicate sustainability, you must do sustainability first. It sounds obvious but in these greenwashing times, it needs to be said. Wondering how to talk about environmental or social sustainability should only come after you have done something about it – and it’s okay if that something is in progress. Anybody who has been trying to make or do things right knows that to “do” sustainability is a process and a long one at that.
While you're figuring out the best way to make sure your business, idea, product or project has the best possible impact on the community around you or the world in general, you might want to share your journey. The most important thing you can do to fight climate change is to talk about it, but that's when you realize it's more complicated than expected.
Why is sustainability communication so hard?
- There’s deep and, quite frankly, justified mistrust. The vast majority of people that talk about sustainability are doing it because they have to, which might not affect the final outcome, but does raise the question of the validity of the purpose behind it.
- There’s widespread misinformation. “Sustainability” hit the big screens loudly and suddenly and everyone was notified of the existence of this word while being told they were almost too late to learn it. Society has been bombarded with information that at best unconsciously confuses and at worst consciously misleads.
- It always calls for a change: either in thinking or action or both, and it's hard to shift people's mentality when there’s often no immediate benefit to them.
- If the communication is based on truth, this usually means it stems from scientific and possibly complex facts. Sustainability is not an opinion: it needs science, which in the wrong hands can come out as either boring or confusing. Let’s not forget that scientists have been talking about climate change for the past 150 years and look where we are despite this.
- To have a positive impact is very hard, while a net impact is (hopefully) achievable and a negative one is very easy. This means that for every good thing you’re doing, there’s a high chance of at least another one that is not that great. Sharing that you aren’t doing that great is never fun.
In order to tackle these challenges, these seven guidelines may help to keep your priorities in check:
1. Be transparent: the world is a mess. Everybody understands that no one has been doing things right so people need to learn how companies, individuals and associations are trying to improve their environmental impact and social attitude and how that journey is going.
2. Be engaging: in following that journey, consumers need to feel empowered by the positive change that is being made possible and believe they can enforce it too. It must engage and not frighten them.
3. Make it simple: there's an educational aspect to sustainability communication that means it must be accessible. Use units of measurement that people can relate to and link them to their everyday life. Translate a red steak into litres of water, watts into Euros, a pair of jeans into shower time and so on. Help people understand; don't throw around words that nobody knows.
4. Base sustainability communications on facts and data.
5. See the positive: don’t use catastrophe as a tool to engage; your communications need to empower by showing what can be done and not just what shouldn’t be done. If the positive is not working for you, try something else. In Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age, Nicole Seymour, associate professor of English at California State University, Fullerton, touches on the relationship between environmentalism and science, explaining how ironic it is. She quotes historian Jacob Darwin Hamblin: “In defending the findings of groups such as the United Nations IPCC (…) scientists found the rhetoric of environmental catastrophe irresistible. By employing it, they merely reinforced scepticism among those who had ridiculed such rhetoric for decades.”
6. Make it different: this is true for every communication output given the amount of content out there, but it’s even harder for everything that concerns sustainability because one thing is certain: what has been done so far has not worked or we would not have reached this point. Since sustainability communication requires an active engagement of the target audience, that communication needs to be powerful enough to not only stick but to influence, inspire and act. Stop putting green writings on the wall and think differently.
7. Don't use the word sustainable. The report Words that work: Effective language in sustainability communications, suggests that on average, the word “sustainability” is repeated 10 times on each sustainability webpage of Forbes’ top 50 brands, while the most sustainable brands only used it once. Basically, if you feel the need to use that word often, maybe you shouldn’t be using it at all.
Some years from now, I hope we won't be talking about sustainability communication but simply communication. Some of the challenges listed above won't be as significant as they are today and some behaviours will have shifted. Just as technology has inevitably changed the way we communicate and intend communication, so will sustainability and the progress made in the following decade.
The world’s youth is bearing the burden of previous choices but has the possibility of enacting the change it wants to see in the future. Provided we grow loud enough to be heard, will what we have to say get through?
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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