Sustainability Storytelling – Helpful Tips

Most large organizations and companies have sustainable business practices; they must in order to attract the right customer and to help improve their bottom line. But how should you tell that story in a clear, convincing, and compelling way (and with the client/reader in mind?)

This blog series provides some helpful tips I’ve learned when writing for Guardian Sustainable Business and other clients on how to tell your corporate story in a way that doesn’t sound like green washing and helps you stand out from the rest.

Think of what you want to say

Step one of any business message: analyze what specifically you want to say. What’s your message? What do you want your audience to think about your sustainability efforts? Before typing a thing, consider the following careful questions:

  • How do you stand out within your industry? What specific sustainability measures do you practice that others don’t?
  • Semi related; what does your organization/non-profit/university do that goes beyond the expected such as recycling/conserving water, electricity etc.
  • How does your group raise the bar for the industry? How do you push things forward? Once you answer these questions in an honest, direct way you can then ensure your story remains clear and unique.

If you’re not sure of your exact message, try this technique I learned from Dr. Heidi Schultz at Kenan-Flagler Business School. Plug in a pithy response to this question: As a result of my message, I want my reader(s) to know this …

Be specific

Organizations often fail by not offering their reader/audience anything tangiable and memorable about their practices. This step becomes a mistake. Reporters smell mackerel and won’t write about you. Your customers may also turn off.

As you craft your corporate sustainability story, ensure you offer your readers rich details on how you’re operating within this space. Consider the following examples:

If you’re big on ensuring women and minorities serve on your boards, move up to management positions, then offer us the numbers. Because of their shameful record in not hiring women and minorities for leadership roles, big IT companies like Facebook and Apple Inc. now offer a true breakdown of under-represented talent on their website.

If you value transparency and your customers knowing about sourcing and suppliers, then provide insight into where those elements come from through a supplier list as H&M Group does after finding the rayon in many of their garments actually came from endangered rainforests. (I wrote on this development for Guardian Sustainable Business.)

If avoiding chemicals in your products feels essential to your story, then, reveal how specifically you keep your products chemically pure.  Eileen Fisher provides a great example.

Remain authentic

Whatever your message, ensure you have integrity. If you’re claiming yourself as the world’s most sustainable consumer electronics firm, then ensure all elements of your business remain sustainable. Can you promise all factories treat all employees with dignity and respect? Have you grasped all elements of your supplier list to ensure all ingredients treat the earth well? Do your marketing efforts encourage senseless, wasteful consumer spending, or, like Patagonia, do you stand out by bravely asking your customer to pause by buying yet another coat?

Frequently, I see companies touting their sustainability practices; however, I know from my reporting the company pushes its employees too hard, fails to reprimand (or dismiss) leaders who routinely bully their staff.

To me, those companies provide not good examples of sustainable businesses and to promote themselves otherwise becomes insincere and foolhardy. These companies gain an ‘F’ from me and likely from their customer too, should they learn this truth. I write on this topic in more detail in this essay for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Be creative (and include people) in your storytelling

With the industry so crowded with generic phrasing and approaches, presenting yourself as a company/group following best sustainable business practices remains tough. But creativity will win every time, so hire the best advice and listen to the creatives on your team to get to the most engaging hook of your message.

One favorite sustainability story for me came from the Rio Olympics where an enterprising, celebrity chef created a makeshift dining hall and, using the unused food from various suppliers, produced five-star meals for the homeless. This uplifting, caring story on food waste (to me at least) provides excellent branding for both the chef and the Olympics. (The recipients of the meals became so overjoyed, many wept or danced.) This example also shows us the importance of including people in our storytelling efforts. In caring for the planet after all, we’re also trying to care about those living on it.

Tell us your methods of sharing your story; what’s worked for you? Next week’s post: The sustainable business stories shaping 2017.

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