The Challenge For Sustainability Communicators: It’s Time For Some Good News

Beautiful Underwater photography of a Green Turtle

Alice Johnson, head of sustainability at comms agency greenHorizon, explains the challenges communicators face in 2024 to better drive Australia’s environmental progress.

“I have heard it said recently that the climate crisis is a failure of communication. We need to think about how to tell better stories.”

– Kate Dundas, Executive Director, UN Global Compact Australia

Climate crisis. There’s no doubt the words have finally gained traction in the public mind, but they’re not what’s keeping Australians awake at night. That’ll be the cost of living (or “cozzie livs”, if you believe the Macquarie Dictionary), housing, healthcare and petrol prices. With concern for the environment having “tracked down” (Ipsos Issues Monitor, Nov 2023), what can sustainability communicators do to keep environmental issues top of the agenda in 2024?

In our latest greenHorizon report ‘The 2024 Sustainability Agenda’, we surveyed some of Australia’s most influential sustainability leaders – from the UN Global Compact Australia and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation to Coles and startup Goterra – and found some key areas of consensus.

Their main message for communicators wanting to play a meaningful and effective role in the race to a more sustainable future? It’s time for positive stories.

The narrative of hope

“There is a lot of negative news out there, from global conflicts to the cost-of-living crisis and natural disasters linked to climate change,” says Justin Frank, Head of Strategy and Communications at food waste startup Goterra. Instead, “communicators need to focus on the positives and reframe the negatives into realistic opportunities. People need hope for the future as well as a clear path on how they can positively contribute to change.”

Andrew Petersen, CEO of the Business Council for Sustainable Development Australia, agrees: “While it’s essential to acknowledge the challenges, sustainability communicators should also emphasise the opportunities and successes in sustainability efforts. Framing the conversation around positive stories of innovation, impact and collaboration can inspire action and engagement.”

Less spin, more science

It might seem like a no-brainer, but rhetoric is nothing without proof points. “Right now, people want substance,” says Anna Marsden, CEO of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. “The public is crying out for communications that go beyond generalised statements.”

This means understanding and effectively communicating the science of sustainability. “Using credible data and evidence-backed narratives will help build trust and resonate with stakeholders,” adds Petersen.

At the same time, Brooke Donnelly, General Manager, Sustainability at Coles, warns against defaulting to lazy jargon. “The huge challenge facing sustainability communicators over the next year will be making technical and complex issues accessible to a broader audience,” Donnelly says. “This doesn’t mean dumbing sustainability down. Communicators have to strike the right balance between accessible and accurate.

“One strategy that I find particularly powerful is bringing a human, personal element to sustainability communications. This approach gets to the heart of how issues affect people and, ultimately, makes these abstract concepts more engaging and relevant.”

Greenwashing v green-hushing

The public appetite for less talk, more action is in large part due to widespread dialogue around greenwashing, with regulators, investors and employees alert to false or misleading claims. Kate Dundas, executive director of the UN Global Compact Australia (which promises a course on greenwashing for communications and marketing professionals early this year) says it is crucial for communicators to understand and eliminate greenwashing. But they need to do so fearlessly. In order to avoid unwanted scrutiny, many organisations have resorted to “green-hushing”, hiding or under-reporting their ESG activities or credentials. “Critically, communicators need to avoid self-censoring their messages for fear of greenwashing,” says Susan Mizrahi, Non-Executive Director of the UN Global Compact and Honorary Fellow of Melbourne Climate Futures, University of Melbourne. “Now is the time for action, not silence.”

Reporting: show & tell

With tougher new reporting requirements taking effect from July, communications professionals will need to be prepared for Scope 3 emissions – those produced in a business’s value chain outside its direct industrial processes – to be high on the agenda. It means larger companies will make the ESG credentials of their supply chains their business like never before. Disclosure, however, need not be an added burden – and can even provide opportunities for new narratives and closer engagement up and down the value chain. “Boards and companies should avoid interpreting this new annual task as a compliance exercise and instead read into the story it tells,” says Mizrahi.

Costing change

The cost of living crisis won’t be disappearing any time soon, and research shows that it has been dampening public concern about climate change and the environment. The impact of less discretionary spending on the uptake of sustainable products is also a real concern. However, Ipsos director Stuart Clark insists the transition to green energy can be framed as economically beneficial for consumers and business alike.

“The idea that living sustainably can be good for the planet and good for your pocket will be an important message in 2024,” says Clark. “There are some obvious areas where making a change can save households money. Think of installing solar and driving an EV for long-term savings, or getting an e-bike … There is a golden opportunity to highlight the instances where multiple benefits intersect to drive the behaviour change we need.”

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