The recent attacks on “woke capitalism”, or businesses that stand for something more than making profits, have roused some debate about the future of environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance by businesses.
Too often recently I’ve heard reference to sustainability or ESG as a ‘trend’. Interest in sustainability among executives, consumers, investors and regulators has never been higher, but to call it a trend suggests that interest will fade away like yesterday’s fad.
As communicators, to treat sustainability like a trend means that we increase the likelihood of falling into the trap of tokenism and being called out for greenwashing. A trend is something that you can news jack, something that you might treat as a focal point for a one-off stunt or study to build relevance or credibility for your brand. Sustainability is not a passing craze.
Sustainability is a movement for change driven by the need to address interconnected societal, economic and environmental issues. Climate change is perhaps the most pervasive sustainability issue affecting everyone and everything on our planet. The lengths that humanity will need to go to address our climate crisis are unprecedented. It will require nothing less than a transformation of our energy, transport, food, fashion and waste systems to name just a few. To call it a trend significantly underplays the challenges we all face.
The number of large businesses now setting net zero targets and ensuring that they are verified by the Science Based Targets Initiative is encouraging, but this is still only the tip of the rapidly melting iceberg. Any organisation seeking to hang their latest campaign on climate change without first taking a good look at their own actions and ensuring that they are beyond reproach is asking for reputational trouble.
As the recently leaked ASA decision on HSBC’s marketing claims indicates, regulators (and this goes way beyond the powers of the ASA) are increasingly looking at claims made in marketing and communications materials through a wider lens, asking themselves the question – to what extent do the actions of this company align or not with the sentiment of their materials?
From a communications perspective, there are numerous consequences for marketing communicators and corporate affairs. It requires that assertions are tested and verified by the best independent authorities. It requires that corporate communicators align with brand communicators to ensure that claims are not out of sync with performance. It requires working with other parts of the organisation to build a case based on impact. It also requires the use of expert advice from those with knowledge and experience to decide and advise if a claim stands up to scrutiny.
Perhaps most importantly though it requires communicators to challenge colleagues. Communicators provide a vital perspective on external stakeholders and the changing context of an organisation. When standards and expectations are raised we need to be ready to take that challenge and assert that the reputational risks outweigh any potential gains if the evidence of action is found wanting.
Good sustainability communications focus on the issue and the impact, seeking to enhance that impact through communications. It requires expertise and experience that can provide a constructive challenge to colleagues and clients. It can spot trends within sustainability and help an organisation to benefit from a credible, values-based alignment with those trends, but it never mistakes sustainability itself as a trend.