Communicating your particular commitment to ESG matters to most of your stakeholders, and the authenticity matters most of all. How do you frame your commitment in a manner that’s credible, clear and engaging, and how do you ensure it’s in tune with your brand?
There’s a lot of confusion around the terms ‘ESG’, ‘sustainability’ and ‘CSR’, with the words often used interchangeably. There is some overlap, but there are very clear distinctions and it’s important to be clear what you mean by the terms you use, to avoid ambiguity.
Communicating authentically is challenging due to the proliferation of clichés. Words can mean different things to different people. And many messages are at such a high level, and so generic, that they become meaningless. Using clichés also means language becomes bland and lacks distinction.
The word ‘sustainability’ itself has become a bit of a cliché. Whilst it’s become all-encompassing, it’s often taken to have a purely environmental focus. It is a good signpost though, as people will search for it, and it’s increasingly appearing at the top-level navigation on websites.
Beyond signposting, the clichés continue. Words like ‘better’, ‘future’, ‘build’, ‘world’, ‘commitment’ and ‘together’ are overused and don’t reflect anything about the brands who are using them.
So how can you choose your words wisely?
Patagonia uses an authentic, human voice to communicate their distinctive approach to business. A letter from their founder Yvon Chouinard strikes a good balance between a sense of urgency, and one of action and hope.
Sustainably-focused organisations often avoid the word sustainability, as it is too broad. Instead, they get specific about what they’re doing and provide evidence. Patagonia also does this well. When it talks about getting oil out of their clothes, it explains how and immediately feels authentic.
Using your tone of voice also ensures you sound authentic. Reformation is a clothing company with a sustainability focus, and their messaging will certainly chime with their audience. Their sustainability report is peppered with their quirky, conversational language as well as getting across the factual stuff.
ESG and sustainability communications are full of visual clichés too.
Type ESG, sustainability or social responsibility into Getty Images and you get a very environmental picture. Green dominates. Images of trees and plants, aerial shots, wind turbines, solar panels and green roofs. Where people do appear, rather than in a business context, they are wearing green and growing plants or doing community work. To be fair, stock imagery has improved. But it still seems to be floundering and relying on clichés in this area.
Other image types are full of clichés too. Icons provide simplistic options for an increasingly complex and regulated subject matter. Nature images are popular as they can be beautiful and feel positive, but have a very environmental focus. And whilst children may be our future, using pictures of them doesn’t feel very genuine.
So how do you avoid the ‘green’ clichés?
Imagery doesn’t have to reflect these themes if your message is clear. Apple align their environmental message to innovation and simply show their products in their recognisably stylish way – and they’re not green.
Illustration is a really good way to reflect the more complex, nuanced aspects of sustainability. McKinsey uses their existing illustration style (not changed to green) to create a striking image that captures aspects of people, nature, measurement and an upwards journey.
And don’t forget your people. Mondi’s sustainable development report makes a hero of their people and what they’re doing, and feels like a refreshing change after the leaves in lightbulbs.
Clichés aren’t all bad though. They work because they’re instantly recognisable and understood. HubSpot’s sustainability report manages to take the planet and some green leaves and turn them into a stylish illustration of their own and it works really well.
Even if your organisation is not where it wants to be, it’s important to share your journey in an open, authentic way. People are not only looking, they are scrutinising what you say.
Julie Sweet, the Chair and CEO of Accenture says, “In 2025 we’ll be talking about how every business is a sustainable business”. That may feel optimistic, but Accenture also talk about sustainability is the new digital which puts that in context. Once sustainability becomes part of everyday life and business, so, in turn will the way we talk about it.
So whatever stage of the journey you’re on, how do you talk about it?
By being honest. And some organisations are happy to be brutally honest. Ace & Tate is an eyewear brand, and a certified B Corp. They tell their journey quite openly, using their distinctive tone of voice, ‘Look we messed up’, and share a series of ‘bad moves’. Things that they did in good faith, that didn’t work out, and what they’re doing about it.
By using social media. Ganni is well known as, well, not a ‘sustainable’ fashion brand. They reject the term sustainability and focus on being a ‘responsible’ brand. And they use social media to share the big and small steps on their journey. Their Instagram account Ganni Lab features a whole series of posts showing how they move forward constantly on a variety of fronts.
By being accountable. A development in Kings Cross, London, shares their sustainability goals on the hoardings round the site in a way that grabs attention and that everyone can see. And McKinsey has 120 green teams working on ways to reduce their environmental footprint. By sharing these activities on film they make themselves accountable to their people and the wider world.
To help people understand your commitment to ESG, you need to make it digestible and easy to grasp. With the whole topic area, there’s potentially so much to consider. There’s a vast array of topics that sit underneath the ESG/sustainability umbrella. And if you have multiple initiatives, policies, communications and methods of reporting, there’s a danger that how you talk about it and present it can become very complex.
Not everyone will be looking for the detail. And even for those who do, it’s important to lay out your overall position clearly and succinctly first, before diving into the detail. Deliver the information and structure your communications in a way that makes what you have to say clear, engaging and digestible.
Ensure you lead with a really simple and clear up-front statement of your position on and commitment to ESG. Give readers the option to dive into the detail if they want to, but also serve them up the edited highlights so they’re easy to grasp.
Break your content into bite-sized pillars or themes that make them easier to understand and engage with. And bring them to life in an engaging way, putting your money where your mouth is to truly evidence your commitment – as Adobe US do, by showcasing the work of Yulia Vus, a Ukrainian illustrator who’s a recipient of their Ukraine Creators Fund grant (one of their CSR initiatives).
To get your ESG commitment across powerfully and authentically we think it’s important to make it personal, bring people to the fore, and use storytelling.
This might be about showcasing the people within your organisation – so people can hear and see them talking about your, and their, collective commitment to ESG. By doing this you’re showing that it’s more than corporate spin – that all your people are committed to it and care. And by including a good cross-section of your people you can show that it’s not just something that’s being talked about in the Boardroom, but is being lived across the organisation, as Baringa do in their film to mark them becoming a certified B Corporation. And in a less formal way, social media is a great way to get across the face of the business and give a really personal sense of your commitment to ESG.
Alternatively, it might be about showcasing the voices of the people in the wider world and society who are benefitting from your ESG initiatives. This, again, shows it’s authentic and provides evidence around the personal impact of what you’re doing.
Whichever, it’s about making that personal connection, showing that authentic personal commitment and painting a picture of the personal impact it can achieve.
And finally, just like achieving sustainability goals will require businesses and all of us to collaborate and come together to solve the issues, the same can be said for how we communicate around these issues.
The more we educate ourselves, grow our knowledge, join the dialogue and debate, the more we’ll raise awareness and find solutions.
So, rather than working in a vacuum, whether you have a wealth of your own ESG content and proof points or not, consider collaborating with others to amplify the debate and demonstrate your commitment. This might be about curating conversations with other businesses that are making a real impact, so you’re showcasing the great work they’re doing. Or reporting back on an ESG-themed event you’ve been to and posting your key take-outs from the event – communicating these to a wider audience and, through this, showing your interest in, and commitment to, the topic.
Alternatively, it might be about collaborating with third party ESG specialists or activists, working together to both help you improve the nature of your ESG initiatives, and how you communicate about these to the audiences that matter the most. For example, instead of a 300-page sustainability report, take the same content and turn it into digestible 15 minute podcasts aimed at Gen Z – a medium they’re already engaged in. This format allows you to combine the voices of multiple people, encouraging a conversation and providing wider perspectives. When Puma did this recently they said, “When we launched ‘Voices of re:generation’ [their sustainability podcast aimed at Gen Z] we saw a lot of conversation on LinkedIn from NGOs, businesses and young people… we want to keep the conversation going and continue to challenge the status quo”.
So, collaborate with others, work together and curate third party content from other great sources. None of us can solve this on our own, coming together and collaborating is key.
Wherever you are on your ESG journey, communicating it with honesty and authenticity is important. And you can do that by leveraging many of the suggestions outlined above: using language in a clear and ownable way; either avoiding visual cliches or making them your own; being honest with where you are on your journey; not overcomplicating your communications and making things digestible and easy to grasp; including personal stories to bring it to life authentically; and, finally, harnessing the power of collaboration and curation to engage and amplify your commitment to this important topic.
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