When Everyone is Talking About Climate Commitments, Should You Too?
December 21, 2022
Authentic and Meaningful Sustainability Storytelling in a Crowded Space
In a year marked by global natural disasters, an energy crisis dominating European affairs, and a still churning global pandemic, it’s no surprise that CEOs, investors, and other decision-makers are recognizing environmental, social and governance factors as primary concerns that impact corporate reputation and the bottom line. Among the most complex and immediate of these issues on the minds of corporate stakeholders and consumers alike is climate change, which impacts almost every facet of business and social well-being. More than any other issue, it’s climate that dominates headlines and the speaking tracks of marquee forums and events.
It’s no wonder then that everyone wants to tell their own unique “climate story” to the media and share it on information platforms, using it to connect to business leaders, social influencers, and a broad customer and stakeholder base. But the reality is that climate is a tough subject area to break into as a thought leader.
In a rapidly shrinking media world, making headlines or just getting an email response from a reporter on ANY issue is more complex and challenging than ever. Attention spans are short. If you’re trying to tackle the elephant in the room that is the climate crisis, you’d better have an equally enormous story to tell. The reality is, most organizations don’t.
The Struggle to Quantify Progress
Environmental standards differ from market to market, region to region, and what one community or locale cares about won’t resonate with every audience. Similarly, most organizations struggle to quantify progress on climate action. It’s one thing to tell stakeholders you’re making an impact; it’s another entirely to show your work with easy-to-digest key performance indicators and metrics.
But that doesn’t mean a company doesn’t have a valuable story to tell. For example, an insurance firm may not have anything newsworthy or credible to share about its operational carbon footprint. Still, they CAN tell a compelling and important story regarding coastal resiliency and climate-related erosion mitigation. A food manufacturer may not be able to tell a compelling story about renewable energy in their factories but could have an interesting story to tell around its supply-chain sustainability, use of digital labels to make products more traceable, or eliminating waste.
Critical to an authentic, meaningful, and – most importantly – interesting story is a narrative showing how a company’s point of view of a climate-related issue or solution aligns with their business purpose or expertise.
Make Your Messages Meaningful
A good practice for corporate leaders who want to engage on climate issues should be to approach it through the broader environmental, social, and governance landscape, identifying their actions that indirectly – but essentially – address climate change. Get creative. Look at what you’re doing in a new way.
For example, when you highlight your use of sustainable, nature-based materials or inputs in product manufacturing, that’s a climate story because you may be protecting biodiversity, expanding sustainable business practices, or sunsetting non-biodegradable or single-use materials. Also, build off your partners’ successes. When you contract with a new last-mile delivery company, that can be a climate story depending on their use of hybrids or EVs, their route planning to reduce emissions, or their own use of renewable and sustainable materials in their operations.
Importantly, in sharing narratives that address climate change solutions, employ the principles of good storytelling. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel; effective ESG or sustainability storytelling shouldn’t be different in practice, only in perspective. Mine for effective stories to tell. Engage your audience. Be relatable. Entice people with a unique perspective. This is how you differentiate yourself.
Don’t Leave Audiences Behind with Techno Talk
There’s one caveat: if your story is too technical or industry-centric, you’ll leave lay people scratching their heads trying to understand it. At the same time, keeping a discussion too high-level runs the risk of being dismissed for not adding anything substantive to the dialogue. A delicate balance needs to be struck, but it can be done with intentionality and thoughtfulness.
There’s no shortage of climate stories in the ether, and it can be daunting trying to find a way to break through with one that resonates and winning a single news cycle is a fleeting success. Finding a truly lasting angle that allows you to advance your narrative with a program of stories that elevate your organization’s standing to new heights should be the goal. It’s attainable, but requires introspection, looking at your operations and decisions through a different lens than you may be used to, and an adherence to the tenets of good storytelling. Be bold and creative, and you can make a tangible, lasting impression.
[The authors thank FINN Partners colleague Ian Hancock for his contributions in developing this article. Ian is based in the Beltway and focuses on how ESG policies influence company and NGO priorities.]