As a direct result of consumer expectations, a new era for sustainability is here, and it packs an undeniable punch. A recent Radley Yeldar study shows that over 98% of Forbes Most Valuable Companies are guilty of using at least one of the eight most common sustainability clichés, including phrases like “our commitment” and “together, we can.” It’s a trap we have often fallen into in the past—but we are not intent on keeping those mistakes up.
Sustainability and climate efforts are now the headliners of the show. Under pressure from consumers, shareholders and investors, almost every company out there is working on finding ways to create measurable environmental and social value, alongside the conventional economic value.
The Page Conversation on Sustainability as a Business Model, on September 14, focused exactly on that transition—Ball Corporation’s VP of Communications and Corporate Affairs Courtney Reynolds and Patagonia’s Director of Global PR and Communications, Eric Hollister Williams, joined me in looking at the place of sustainability narratives in the business community, and how the shifting tides were affecting how we were doing our jobs.
For Eric, it wasn’t simply a case of consuming green, but a deep transformation of consumption in general, a "reimagining of capitalism.” Patagonia leads the way on this: through its Worn Wear initiative, the company is helping consumers to mend and reuse, even exchange their gear rather than purchasing entirely new ones. “There is the option,” Eric said, “to share what we’re doing and to learn from others on how we can innovate to lessen our harm to the planet.”
And consumers are learning. A recent McKinsey survey defines Gen Z consumption as “unique, unlimited and ethical”, a significant shift in purchasing behavior. This is creating pressure on companies to change as well. “Gen Z wants facts and stats, and third-party evaluations,” said Courtney, “And they want to know that corporations are taking action to do better, rather than putting the onus solely on the consumer.” A portion of that responsibility falls on the communication leaders, whose role becomes creating not only the narratives around which companies are taking action, but also creating the heightened awareness and visibility around those actions that will lead consumers to make better choices.
There are several ways to allow for those better choices. Eric talked about starting with the supply chain as a priority, since a major portion of Patagonia’s carbon emissions are caused by supply chains. There is a need for an innovative approach here; and strategic investments to take it further. For Courtney and Ball, it is circularity: it’s important for companies to start with a sustainable product design so it can come back. While aluminum cans, cups and bottles are the world’s most recycled beverage containers, Ball Corporation is hoping to surpass a 90% recycling rate from today’s rate of 69%. Here too, the key word becomes investment; according to Courtney, the recycling infrastructure—particularly in the U.S.-- is ailing, and in need of significant infrastructure improvements that will enable more and more people to recycle.
When it comes to impact, action outweighs reporting. Courtney says Ball focuses on ways to “activate people” and “inspire a movement” to encourage and enable people to make a difference. And while Patagonia has identified key areas to improve their efficiency, “actions will have more of an impact than reports,” Eric said.
And what that action entails is a lot more than just the environment. A topic of passion for both the panelists and the participants was quickly revealed to be social justice, and the issue of inclusivity under the sustainability narrative. “You can’t save the planet for just one segment of the population,” Eric says, explaining why, for Patagonia, diversity and inclusion is crucial to sustainability. “There isn’t enough diversity on teams now to have that knowledge and lived experience [to create the impact] that we need and must see. We have to do better.”
Courtney highlights a similar commitment on Ball’s side: “We realize that whether it’s harsh weather events or access to infrastructure, some communities are hit harder than others, and we need to acknowledge and act on that.”
Our Page conversation was not only a reaffirmation of that change, but an invitation for reforming our field as well. There was a lot of valuable insight that was woven into the discussion, but the ones that caught my attention the most were:
These key insights all paint a clear picture: Communications now is the leading actor in sustainability narratives. We must reinvent our phrasing and our stories according to the rising level of awareness, social justice and multidimensional views that are affecting our work. Clarity should replace clichés; all roads should lead to visibility and awareness, and we should work towards meaningful impact.
We must not only be voicing the change; we must also be the change ourselves.
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