306 billion, 1,659 and 1.
These numbers, respectively, represent the total cost in USD for cleaning up after climate-influenced disasters in the U.S a few years ago; the number of climate strikes young people took part in this past March; the number of degrees of planetary warming it has taken to spur these impacts and social movements.
The conversation around climate change has finally spilt into the mainstream. Companies, as many have pointed out, are expected to be at the forefront of the transition to a more sustainable tomorrow. And businesses have all the reasons to take on that leadership role, not least to ensure credibility in the eyes of pro-climate millennials, who form their main consumer and talent market, but also to secure buy-in from their shareholders.
Central to this is being able to communicate effectively around corporate climate action – to connect and convince, but most importantly to show progress in a transparent manner.
So, where to start and how to ensure your communications have an impact?
- Know your context
A 1.5°C warming looks very different depending on where you stand: a poor night’s sleep and higher aircon bills in most of the Western world, but a loss of income, homes and communities in the lower income countries. In the corporate sphere, it could be more material risks in your supply chain or investment portfolio. While, for others, it might be as trivial as witnessing the extinction of the planet’s most instagrammable food pairing – avocado on toast.
There’s no ‘one-size-fit-all’ approach to communicating about climate change and your company’s role to tackle it, which is why framing and tailoring climate messages is key. In addition to getting your basic demographics and psychographics right, understanding your audience’s unique ‘climate context’ will better inform your communications tactics.
Anheuser-Busch, for example, chose to communicate its plan to purchase 100 percent of its energy from renewables by 2025 by advertising during the Super Bowl. This enabled the company to speak directly to both its customers as well as sports fans who are likely to enjoy microbrews. In an effort to inject sustainability efforts more prominently into their customers’ purchasing journey, the LEGO Group added “Packaging from responsible sources” on the back of all of their LEGO products. This was done in parallel with launching a new LEGO set that comprises a fully functioning wind turbine with bricks made from plants.
- Make it tangible
It’s hard to connect with something that you do not care about – and no one will care about something that they do not understand or have not experienced. Climate change can be a nebulous concept, and showing your audience first-hand impacts of action (or inaction!) can make it more salient. From farmers and fishermen losing their livelihoods during extreme droughts, to homeowners seeing their properties crumble in a flood – these are the very real risks our global community faces.
We are seeing brands taking a stand to address the causes and also the consequences, of climate change; GAF, North America's largest roofing and waterproofing manufacturer, donated USD 1 million via direct relief, financial aid, and roofing materials for more than 200 homes of the most vulnerable citizens in the hurricane impact area. Timberland, the American manufacturer and retailer of outdoor footwear, is calling on its consumers to put their best boot forward and join them in doing the right thing for the outdoors that they explore. Alongside its efforts to reduce GHG emissions, procure renewable energy and support nature-driven solutions to climate mitigation, it is engaging with its customers by sharing insiprational stories from the cities it is greening
The purpose of getting your audience to care and stand behind your mission is to inspire them to become part of your climate action journey. Reformation, a sustainable clothing brand, has, for example, made that participation easy by directly integrating carbon offsets as part of the shopping experience. UCapture, a green tech platform, is mainstreaming this approach by channelling funds from online shopping to climate protection projects. Joining the climate revolution is becoming as easy as a click of a button!
- Create a conversation
Climate change has become a politically- and emotionally-charged issue, one that is sure to stir passions. This doesn’t mean you need feel like you are walking on eggshells, nor strip your storytelling of all vestiges of emotion for fear of controversy. But rather, be aware of the context and the specific concerns of your audiences (see point 1) – e.g. will there be a ‘just’ transition when moving to a low-carbon future – will ensure you can open up a frank conversation on the climate-related topics and activities most relevant to your business. You can even engage audiences on climate action without mentioning climate change: some research suggests that raising health concerns is a more effective way to start a climate-related dialogue in the U.S.
Luckily there is no shortage of two-way communication channels in the 21st century, social media features in most peoples daily lives – especially millennials. In 2018, social media was the leading source of online news stories for people ages 18 to 34, greater even than internet searches. Today, they also expect authenticity and responsiveness from the businesses they engage with.
Big brands, including Microsoft and Home Depot, have been quick to include social media channels into their sustainability and climate communications mix to ensure an ongoing dialogue on activities they undertake.
- Lead with impacts
In an era of ‘alternative facts’, trust is more important than ever: the latest Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that people have shifted their trust to the relationships within their control, most notably their employers. There is also an expectation for CEOs of companies to speak up and lead change.
What does this mean?
More transparency in what we communicate, how we communicate, and who communicates. Your audience needs to be convinced that you are really walking the walk. Sound operational evidence and verified impact data is one way to provide that assurance. This doesn’t mean that you should flood your communications with data points – but backing marketing claims and sustainability-related decisions with real, relevant impact figures should become standard practice to ensure credibility and transparency.
Co-working startup WeWork recently announced a controversial new environmental policy to no longer serve meat at its corporate events. This internal memo reached WeWork’s 200,000 members and 6,000 strong staff, and was certain to have raised a few eyebrows.
To mitigate any anticipated pushback upfront, WeWork made sure to emphasise how its decision was in line with new scientific research on the positive environmental impacts that cutting meat consumption can have, especially when done collectively. The company explained that by enforcing this new environmental policy, it could reduce its climate impact by more than 445 million pounds of CO2 by eliminating meat, not to mention saving billions of gallons of water and millions of animal lives.
Companies who have rolled out ambitious carbon neutrality programmes must also show how their investments are creating real impact on the ground. Signify, the world leader in lighting solutions, has done this by consistently tracking and showing the impacts of the carbon reduction projects it supports as part of its corporate climate action initiative.
- Be open
All companies create social and environmental impacts — some are further along than others in addressing the negative ones. This means that, while you should give yourself credit where it’s due, don’t be afraid to talk about the areas where you still need to improve.
Fear of falling short on commitments is the number one reason companies don’t set ambitious goals in the first place. But creating a master narrative of constant improvement and by being open about the challenges you face will help ensure the authenticity of your communications around climate action.
The bottom line: communications on climate action needs to be grounded in strategic, results-based climate action – always. These five approaches will help ensure that your communications reinforce your company’s sustainability strategy.
This piece has been co-authored by Jonathan Hanwit and Nadia Kahkonen.
Nadia Kahkonen is Head of Communications at South Pole, a leading sustainability consultancy and globally recognized developer of climate action projects.
Jonathan Hanwit is CEO and Founder of ThinkParallax, a branding and communications agency on a mission to better the world by articulating and amplifying brands' sustainability impact.