December 10, 2018 | Bianca Mohn

The word “sustainability” has taken the business world by storm. Everywhere we look, from product packaging to taglines to corporate websites, we see the word over and over and over again.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s a good thing that consumers and business leaders are considering the environment and society when they make decisions. It’s the only hope we have if we are going to stand up for protecting our natural resources, for fighting against poverty and inequality, and for creating a better world for future generations.

But what happens when a word like sustainability becomes trendy and overused? And what happens when the word is thrown around without any real action or proof behind it?

It loses all meaning.

And in our world today, with all of its environmental destruction and suffering, sustainability must have meaning. It has to.

Companies know from market research that consumers are weighing sustainability when they make purchase decisions, in addition to functionality, price, features, and aesthetics. Because of this, there’s been an international wave of companies creating sustainability programs, or alternatively, corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs. Companies have invested billions in these programs, and in marketing these programs to consumers via product packaging, social media, and online.

At first, it was a big deal when companies talked about their sustainable products or initiatives. It was viewed as pioneering and bold. Now, it has become the norm. It has become expected. And what makes this problematic is that consumers are now facing mountains of sustainability claims, some which are supported by evidence, and others that are airy and vague.

Not surprisingly, consumers are more skeptical than ever about companies’ sustainability efforts. With the influence of “greenwashing” and events like the Volkswagen emissions scandal, using the word sustainability can elicit doubt. Consumers are savvy – they know that companies aim to be profitable, and in turn are more dubious about their claims, even if the statements are in fact accurate.

In this environment, how can a company communicate sustainability in the most effective way possible? Here are some points to consider.

Firstly, take a critical lens to the sustainability program at hand. Does it make sense for your company’s values, industry, and business interests? It’s essential to explain how the sustainability program aligns with your long-term interests. Otherwise, it can appear to consumers as a side-project with little commitment behind it.

Secondly, give consumers easy access to data (verified and certified by credible third parties) that relates to the sustainability program or initiative. Ideally, this data would be visualized to clearly show relevant metrics, performance over several years, areas for improvement, actionable plans to make these improvements, and future goals. Sustainability is difficult and complicated, and it’s ok to show consumers that your company is on a journey, that everything isn’t always perfectly peaceful farms with happy cows. With challenging projects, it’s not always smooth sailing. We all know this.

Thirdly, have honesty be your guiding light when communicating about sustainability. Consumers see right through a company who invests billions in sustainability programs, but who is known to mistreat and underpay employees. And it’s ok to say that protecting certain natural resources is not only good for our planet, but also for the longevity of your business. It lets consumers know that you’re upfront about your business interests, and at the same time that you’re having a positive impact in ways that are documented and evidenced. Transparency is everything.

At the end of the day, companies have an incredible impact on our lives and our world. And they have the power to be forces of good. Sustainability offers an opportunity to support our planet, to alleviate suffering, and to create economic growth. But sustainability must be more than just a buzzword. It should stand for real, documented proof of positive impact on people and the environment. And it should be something that we can all trust in, believe in, and work towards. Otherwise, it’s meaningless.

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