On May 22, nearly 2,000 global leaders and experts from around the world will convene in Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting, which comes — in the words of WEF — “at the most consequential geopolitical and geo-economic moment of the past three decades.” This is true — and while WEF (and other articles) will analyze major issues facing the world — such as conflict and the ongoing emergence from the pandemic — climate change still looms as the largest threat to society and humanity.
Pressure is continuing to build on businesses to take responsibility for their role in tackling climate change. Research released by PwC in December 2021 said as much in the latest edition of its long-running Global Insights Pulse Survey titled, Consumers care more about sustainability than ever before.
This means that, in the best case, all businesses need to take sustainability seriously. In the worst cases, established industries and brands are under pressure not just on their environmental approaches, but on their rights to operate at all.
As a brand or business, wherever you may be on your sustainability journey, there are four key considerations to make:
Hearing concerns and understanding your audience
It is important to listen to consumer sentiment around your business and through the lens of climate change. Tackling perceptions around macro-challenges requires long term and bold approaches — and not taking stock of stakeholder perception could be a threat to future business.
Today, analytics tools provide corporations with a deep understanding of brand perceptions as well as those of an industry, a topic, a material, a practice and much more. Understanding both the perceptions of your brand and those perceptions in context is incredibly powerful.
By listening, business leaders can use this greater understanding as inspiration for transformative operational changes within their businesses, which then provide a communications platform to show action and progress to all stakeholders.
Owning your challenges versus sharing shared challenges
When your right to operate is under attack, decisions need to be made about the shortcomings you want to own and the complex, societal challenges you may want to share. For example, should you take responsibility for your supply chain, even if it means tackling structural and societal change in the areas from which you source your products, or how you move them from source to customer?
Remember that while you may consider elements of, for example, logistics as an issue out of your control, consumers will not differentiate. As a producer or manufacturer, you own the process. This means you must own the solution, too.
However, this doesn’t have to be a lonely process. Working with suppliers, NGO partners or local government, can be a positive way of showing collective action — unifying to solve a problem bigger than any one of us can own. Is this an industry challenge? Consider joining with peers on solutions, collectively communicating progress made and challenges overcome. Today, we see this happening in everything from recycling initiatives to working conditions to technological innovations.
Balancing simplicity and complexity in one approach
The sustainability communications challenge is fraught with tensions. Consumers need a simple message that captures the imagination or a call to action that is easily understood and acted upon. Corporate audiences and B2B customers may need technical accreditations and complex explanations that prove progress is being made on commitments.
Policymakers, who might be passionate advocates yet sometimes lack deep expertise in this topic, may need both.
In this landscape, to protect a right to operate, you need it all. Tailored messages to each audience, bold and eye-catching creative campaigns, deep strategies and multiple proof points of sustainable progress, selective channel approaches and complex stakeholder plans. Above all, everything that you do must be rooted in authentic and operational action.
Using foundations as a launch pad — and thinking long-term
No corporate perception will change overnight. A major sustainability campaign, seemingly from nowhere, could be counter-productive and rather than change perceptions for the better, it can cause a backlash.
While considering long-term commitments, actions or positions, businesses must also consider how perceptions will change. A sustainable position — perhaps on plastic — may quickly date if technology, public perception or key climate challenges change over time. Think carefully about what the future holds for your products and for your sustainability programs.
From a communications point of view, protecting a businesses’ right to operate and fostering positive external reputation can be a challenging process. But with a strong operational foundation, a collective (and authentic) desire to do better — and a long-term commitment to both communicate and address sustainability topics that may be under challenge, the dial can move. One thing that’s overtly clear: corporations must take notice of this pressure now and act accordingly before it’s too late.