In this guest post, Alice Johnson (lead image), head of sustainability at comms agency greenHorizon, talks all things sustainability and gives her pro tips to comms people on how they will need to adapt…
Growing regulation, stringent reporting and the launch of what feels like a new ESG platform every other week (AI-powered, of course!). The winds of change are (finally) blowing for Australia’s sustainability industry. For communications professionals with sustainability in their remit, the time to adapt is now.
Between the much-discussed ACCC greenwashing crackdown and the Comms Declare team calling out climate hypocrisy in ad-land, upskilling around sustainability isn’t just a communications opportunity – it’s an essential risk mitigator.
Here are nine of the biggest themes and trends that communicators need to navigate to stay ahead of this changing space and ultimately have accurate and impactful sustainability conversations.
1. From greenwashing to modest marketing
The Ipsos Trustworthiness Monitor conducted in 2022 found that 52% of the global public still believe too many businesses use the language of change, without delivering any tangible impact. Thispublic appetite for less talk and more action is in no small part thanks to the highly publicised dialogue around greenwashing. Investors, employees and regulators are all on the lookout for false or misleading environmental claims.
In the face of this pervasive scepticism, there is a real opportunity for savvy communicators to lean into a more grounded and modest approach to talking about environmental progress. Businesses need to strike the right balance between technicality and storytelling. That means realistic claims, backed by sound data and clear delivery roadmaps.
While stricter regulation and enforcement around greenwashing are essential, there is a risk that this heightened scrutiny could usher in a new communications trend – green-hushing. Many organisations are now choosing to deliberately under-report or hide their green or ESG credentials to dodge scrutiny. While there’s nothing wrong with businesses thinking hard about the legitimacy of a claim before shouting about it, one unintended consequence we must avoid is a culture that slams any form of failure or set back. Take the recent Lego announcement that the brand will make a U-turn on plans to make bricks from recycled plastic bottles, because the carbon economics of recycled plastic simplydon’t stack up. While the brand took a lot of heat for the failed program, by having the conversation publicly, they are sharing the outcomes with other organisations grappling with similar sustainability challenges. Australia (and the world) has a gargantuan task ahead of us if we are going to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. To get there we need to innovate and with that come some failures. Brands and their communicators must be willing to have open and transparent conversations about failure and false starts – and most critically, what they learnt from them.
3. The business case is as critical as ever
At a time of growing regulation, curious journalists and engaged, opinionated customers, for many C-suiters sustainability is still considered a burden, not a value creator. The Capgemini report A World in Balance surveyed 200 Australian executives about their attitudes to sustainability. Remarkably it found 61% still believe corporate environmental initiatives are a financial burden you simply must bear to do business.
With competition for budgets heating up, the best sustainability communicators will always be on the lookout for a compelling and commercially competitive business case for going green. Whether it’sillustrating how environmental practice benefits the bottom line or highlighting the reputational risk of inaction, effective sustainability communicators will need to embrace the full range of business levers required to help their organisation drive action.
4. Increased reporting = better data storytelling
ESG reporting is set to change drastically in the next 12 months – both globally and here in Australia. In June 2023, the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB) released its initial sustainability standards, IFRS S1 and IFRS S2, establishing a roadmap for global consistency in sustainability disclosure.
While climate reporting has loomed large as the most pressing priority for most businesses, reporting expectation around areas like diversity, Indigenous engagement and human rights are growing. Many brands are turning their sights to the challenge of quantifying social impact, long considered the ‘soft underbelly’ of ESG. Gathering and decoding the complex and often disparate data sets required to meet these changes will be a key challenge for businesses.
For sustainability communicators, access to fresh data unlocks a new opportunity for science-based storytelling. Data visualisation is a powerful opportunity to translate complex sustainability information into actionable insights. Conversely, for brands struggling to source credible and complete data sets, the role of the communicator as strategic counsel will be critical to helping brands recognise and avoid greenwashing risk.
5. Prioritising supply chains
Covid-19 highlighted the fragility of our global supply chains. However, as businesses’ sustainability plans mature, unlocking these highly interconnected networks will be critical to embedding sustainability initiatives at a systemic level. Data sharing across supplier networks will be essential for brands to remain compliant in the new ESG reporting landscape. With new reporting around Scope 3 emissions set to be introduced in Australia from June 2024, businesses will need to scrutinise the ESG credentials of not only their own operations, but also those of their supply chains and broader value chains. Similarly, businesses will need to work closely with their suppliers, industry associations and even their competitors to solve systemic sustainability challenges.
Communications professionals can expect supply chain engagement to emerge as a new priority. Working groups, supplier workshops, data sharing and visualisation and product stewardship-centred storytelling will all be core skills in the sustainability communicator’s toolkit.
6. The rise of the SusComms hybrid
As sustainability programs move from the strategy phase into implementation, the work will impact every part of the business, from product development and marketing to supply chain and logistics. At the boardroom level, Chief Sustainability Officers and, less commonly, Chief Trust Officers are increasingly taking ownership over business identity and strategic direction. Meanwhile today’s communicators are required to communicate increasingly complex topics to a range of audiences. Conversely, communication skills have never been more critical to the success of sustainability teams in their efforts to engage and mobilise suppliers and stakeholders.
In-house teams can expect a new era of cross-function collaboration. Sustainability and MarCommsteams are working more closely on projects than ever before, while in many organisations specialist Sustainability Communicator roles are being developed to bridge this critical skill gap. And external communications isn’t the only business department embracing sustainability. With sustainability regularly ranking as a critical issue for employee satisfaction, environmental programs are now a staple feature in employee wellness and culture programs.
7. Circular storytelling
The circular economy is all about keeping materials in circulation for as long as possible. It’sa design principle that moves societies away from the old “make, take and dispose” system that saw countless tonnes of materials heading straight to landfill. Once the domain of packaging technologists, in the last five years circular thinking has become a staple of business strategy and, for many businesses, marketing and communications.
To be effective, sustainability communicators need to translate this abstract sustainability principle into an easy set of daily actions and behaviours for everyday Australians. More and more businesses will highlight reuse, repair and recycling programs as part of their BAU activity – and explore creative and interactive to make those behaviours habitual.
8. The clash of the E and the S
Sustainability is a broad church, but its parishioners don’t all get along. Social and environmental impact programs often clash. The 2020 announcement by Melbourne-based social enterprise Thankyou to end their line of single-use charitable water bottles (because producing and selling lots of plastic – even for a good cause – doesn’t really make sense)illustrates this tension in a microcosm. More recently, you just need to read some of the headlines facing the beleaguered renewable energy industry. The clean energy sector is grappling with a growing modern slavery and worker rights issues across its supply chain.But the clash isn’t just between environmental and social priorities. As renewables developers work to roll out the infrastructure Australia needs to meet its 2050 net zero targets (including some 10,000km of high-voltage transmission lines), they are grappling with what‘s been dubbed the ‘green vs green dilemma’, or in other words, balancing climate progress with risks to local biodiversity and water quality.
Untangling the competing priorities is first and foremost a planning issue, but communicators will need to be front and centre in the process. And many of the heroes of this process will be the grassroots, bread and butter skills in the comms toolkit. Think clear and consistent community consultations and above all, building a robust social licence to operate.
9. Cost of living and the just transition
Finally, as the cost-of-living crisis starts to pinch (in often heartbreaking ways), the need for a just transition to a green economy has never been more startling. 2022 research from Pollinate found that while 89% of Australians consider a sustainable lifestyle to be important, nearly half (43%) feel they can’t afford to live a sustainable lifestyle. These are inherently systemic issues that governments and businesses need to fix. But communicators have a role to play. Education and behaviour change are two key pillars that can help to unlock and decode sustainability. Whether it’s better energy literacy, reducing food waste or building those habits needed to finally kick the single use coffee cups, communicators have an important role to play in making sustainability fairer and more equitable.
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