Obstacles to be overcome and opportunities to be grasped: the role of communication.
The year now drawing to a close has seen a further advance in the consolidation and spread of the concept of sustainability, as part of a process that has been underway for some years. In 2018, sustainability moved into mainstream business communication and advertising, finally overcoming perception of the issue as a marginal question, a perception that, apart from a few exceptions, had led companies to confine it to the impassive realms of socio-environmental reporting and events for specialists or, in other instances, to use it as a fig leaf in the wake of an accident or a reputation crisis.
All well and good, up to a certain point. There is no doubt that the opening up to sustainability of corporate departments like marketing broadens the audiences reached by communication on eco-compatible products, reducing environmental impacts, and initiatives to create “shared value” among business, institutions and local communities. Nevertheless, a recent IPSOS survey has found that although interest in sustainability is growing, there are still sceptics who fear that sustainability may become a new expedient to attract consumers rather than a true belief.
So what can be done to convince the public that companies are serious about sustainability?
First, the very common mistake of communicating a complex issue like sustainability as just another promotional message needs to be avoided. In practice, this means that simply “informing people” is not enough, nor is applying the albeit still valid old AIDA (Attention-Interest-Desire-Action) rule: sustainability is closely associated with values such as ethics, rights and health, all of which raise doubts, questions, requests for details, as well as (legitimate) fears or requests for reassurance.
If sustainability becomes a shared corporate culture, then time and resources will be invested in monitoring, listening to and talking with the public (supported by content to which people can be referred to for further information).
The reasons for decisions should be clearly explained, without worrying about the difficulties that come with any decision. Also, it is essential to make an effort to change viewpoint in order to communicate, using styles and languages familiar to users/consumers in order to bring the company closer to them.
The only way to tackle the lack of confidence that has hit our institutions but also extends to business (not even the most virtuous organisations have been spared) is for companies to find their own “voice” and endeavour to communicate sustainability by example: through tangible, transparent and measurable action. Using all the tools of modern communication, starting with social media, but never forgetting that simply adding the hashtag #sustainability to an appealing image on Instagram is not the way to eliminate the suspicion reflected in Nando Pagnoncelli’s survey that sustainability may be an expedient.