Communicating sustainability: three common messages

Earth in hands

Are we communicating sustainability well? Hardly anyone with any sense of urgency about it thinks so. It’s easy to find articles about how to do a better job, but they’re in fairly narrow contexts. 

No single message speaks to everyone in all situations. I have never seen any kind of summary of the different channels of communication that need improvement.

Here are three different messages, which each need different strategies for communicating sustainability: 

Communication from environmentalists to society

Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez announcing Green New Deal. Communicating sustainability
Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez announcing the Green New Deal
Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the message from environmentalists to society gets the most attention. As far back as 1970, someone could write of  “hard-pressed conservationists, frightened population experts, [and] exasperated scientists” trying to gain attention. (Peter A. Gunter, “Mental Inertia and Environmental Decay,” Living Wilderness. Spring 1970)

Therein lies a large part of the problem. Gunter’s article makes two contradictory points.

First, in a hundred years population growth would require all the land in the world to make room for all the people. That is, no land left for factories or farming. No parks or ball fields. Second, a famine would kill people off before the end of the century–that is, in 30 years from 1970. How can both happen?

And he made both claims on the same column of the same page! Why did any magazine even accept his article for publication?

Other “experts” pointed with alarm to the coming ice age. The warnings have changed in the past 50 years. But the doom predicted today has no more credibility. 

The message of doom and gloom over climate doesn’t resonate with most of the public. It probably can’t. Not even if the wildest predictions were more likely true. Deforestation and plastic in the oceans are more immediate and visible problems. Unfortunately, they don’t resonate, either. 

Environmental communication means quitting scare tactics and guilt trips. Political talking points limited to narrow environmental issues don’t get the job done. Therefore, to communicate sustainability to the public. point to problems people can relate to. Suggest solutions in terms that people can envision benefitting from.

Getting both agreement and motivated action on local issues will not by itself bring about sustainability. Some issues require federal action, for example. But no progress on these wider issues will happen without public buy-in.

Communication about green products

Cloth shopping bag. communicating sustainability

Too many environmentalists spew anti-corporate rhetoric. We do in fact have allies in business. It’s time to acknowledge it. These businesses have their own problems with communicating sustainability. 

Makers of green products need to persuade customers that their products are better than traditional alternatives. For these companies, green advertising must overcome at least two obstacles: 

First, the earliest green products weren’t very good. They have vastly improved, but they still have a bad reputation. 

Second, too many companies indulge in “greenwashing.” That is, they make phony environmental claims about products that aren’t really green at all.  That makes it hard for true claims.

 Some companies choose not to emphasize their products’ greenness. That avoids greenwashing. Their marketing appeals to the same drives and dissatisfactions as their less green competitors. 

Their products may have great environmental benefit. But the companies that omit the “green” part of the message are not communicating sustainability to customers.

Many companies do truthfully advertise that their products are good for the environment. But they must make sustainability seem normal, exciting, and future-oriented. It’s a huge challenge.

Consumerism causes a big part of our problem. That’s the notion that the whole economy depends on waste for growth. Unfortunately, the easiest messages are negative: Stop this, Don’t buy that. Don’t waste. Is this trip really necessary? Unfortunately, overuse of this approach completely fails to meet the challenge.

Why not advertise well-made, eco-friendly products that will last a long time? How about going beyond stating that a cleaning product doesn’t have bleach? Instead, convey how well it works while being pleasant to use. For example, Windex first became successful by comparing itself favorably to the stench of ammonia.

Communicating corporate sustainability

More and more businesses realize that sustainable practices are critical for their bottom line. Even so, it appears that employees often express greater commitment to them than upper management. Making sustainability a corporate goal requires good communication up and down the line. 

Communication between management and employees is only a start. Other stakeholders include directors and stockholders. So management has to show that long-term commitment to sustainability benefits the bottom line.

Three principles of communication help express the sustainability message more effectively;

  • Keep the message short. Strip it to bare essentials.
  • Keep the message uncomplicated. For example, judge whether an elaborate graphic may be more distracting than helpful.
  • Keep the message everywhere. Use every means of communication: Business to consumer tells the general public. Business to business tells customers and vendors. Internal communication tells employees, directors, stockholders, customers, and vendors.

Not all companies proclaim sustainability as an overall business goal. Employees there have fewer options and greater risk communicating sustainability to management. 

Duke Energy had to plead guilty to federal misdemeanor charges in connection with the 2014 coal ash spill. A pipe collapsed. Engineers had tried to persuade upper management to inspect it with a video camera since 1979. The company pled guilty to criminal charges because of repeated refusal to spend about $20,000.

It appears that in recent years, employees shape their company’s efforts at sustainability more than in the past. More employees now than in the past consider sustainability important. Sometimes enough to change jobs and accept lower pay to work at a sustainable company.

Shop related products:

Live Green: 52 Steps for a More Sustainable Life / Jen Chillingsworth

Simply Living Well: A Guide to Creating a Natural, Low-Waste Home / Julia Watkins

Mainstreaming Corporate Sustainability: Using Proven Tools to Promote Business Success, 2nd edition / Suzanne Farver

Environmental Science: Everything You
Always Wanted to Know About . . . / Sterling Education

Embracing Sufficiency: Consumers United for a Healthier Planet / Joseph Stadtmiller

Better Business: How the B Corp Movement
Is Remaking Capitalism / Christopher
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