How Do You Get People to Embrace ‘Sustainability’?

The climate change debate, raising awareness of plastic use polluting our oceans and waterways, and the redesigning of our roads and urban spaces to accommodate growing numbers of electric vehicles and cycles, no doubt has impacted on many of our daily lives in one way or another. But although the aspiration and intentions to ‘clean up our world and our act’ is an important nee essential one, it doesn’t always translate well when it impacts on us personally. Changing what we and others do today and for the foreseeable can be contentious, especially when the benefits aren’t always appreciated, there’s disagreement over the logic being applied, misunderstandings, or people feel they’re losing out. Then try and apply it within a business and industrial context, other key factors come into play that challenge business models, profitability, supply chains, delivery channels, processes, infrastructure, culture, and relationship dynamics – with the shareholder, stakeholder, market, influencer, partner, employee, and customer.

Angry commuters pulling an Extinction Rebellion protester from the roof of a waiting tube train at Canning Town (London) Underground station recently highlights that highly provocative actions don’t always work in your favour irrespective of how noble the cause, and that perceived overkill can actually distance those you’re trying to win over to your viewpoint. We’ve reached a juncture when the divergent aspects of man exploiting the natural world’s resources meets with how communities are treated, businesses operate, supply chains are managed, food is produced, goods are manufactured, while populations grow and move about have converged to be addressed under the banner of ‘sustainability’.

Fortunately, the United Nations grasped these thorny issues and in 2015 created an integrated blueprint of goals and actions that are designed to comprehensively help secure a more sustainable future for the planet – the UN Sustainable Development Goals These goals can be translated into local policy making, strategy development, influencing our decision-making of how to create and deliver our products and services, build our infrastructure, and live our lives. Already these are being adopted by leading businesses to measure and benchmark their corporate performance and shape their philosophy and decision-making. This was publicly noticeable in 2017 when Unilever rejected Kraft Heinz proposed £115bn ($143bn) takeover bid due to their lack of alignment with Unilever’s sustainable vision and business approach. This was a seminal moment, a sign that the ‘tide was finally turning’ and sent a strong message to businesses of all sizes that there is robust value in embracing sustainability principles and practices at the core of your organisation. There’s now evidence that business integrity can be enhanced without compromising commercial effectiveness. Reputation can be elevated not just by the corporate narrative, but demonstrated through solid operational delivery and customer value propositions.

So how do you translate the talk to the walk?

Here’s a few useful suggestions that can help. Feel free to add to this list:

  • Firstly, realise that ‘sustainability’ isn’t just a meme or should be used as a cynical ploy to garner media coverage and ‘likes’ from followers. Since ethical marketing, ‘go green’ initiatives, organic products, and corporate social responsibility has grown over the past 30 years, many people want to see the proof that organisations are making a positive impact on their declared areas of interest and activity.
  • Be clear on your target outcome from the outset and take time to carry out impact assessments, gather evidence and independent support research to provide a solid evidence base that reinforces the thinking and actions being taken by the new approach.
  • Map out the audiences that will be affected clarifying how they will be impacted. Establish how their needs and requirements will be met with new solutions, and the messaging that needs to shape your dialogue and communications activity with them.
  • Plot out timelines not only for managing the changes you want to introduce but for your contact strategy with different stakeholders. Different audiences often need to be spoken to in different ways (tone of voice, language used) and at different stages, and some need a longer lead time to assimilate the proposed changes.
  • Manage your ‘transparency’ smartly. Often naively people can think that ‘being transparent’ means telling everyone everything, immediately or all the time. The reality is that things don’t always go to plan or play out as originally planned. Often adjustments and various internal and external factors can affect progress and implementation. Weighing up what relevant information you need to share with different audiences at any given time is essential to help people get onboard and manage their expectations. It also involves not unnecessarily drawing attention to something that can be resolved operationally and doesn’t warrant hand-raising, which can cause unnecessary over-reaction from some quarters, or fire up critics and serial protagonists. The reality is that most stakeholders just need to know that you’re ‘on track’ and managing your sustainability programme competently, and achieving what you set out to do – they have their own priorities to focus on.
  • Be proactive. This helps provide reassurance to stakeholders. In the event of hiccups or delays, notify the people that need to know.
  • Don’t shrink away from aggressors or conflict. Be prepared to stand your ground but do so calmly armed with facts and supporting ‘science’ (business cases, expert reports etc). Deploying empathy, and taking time to explain patiently, and not reacting to emotive language can help diffuse frustrated, misinformed, or misunderstanding individuals. Classic ‘angry customer management’ approach applies – let them vent their upset, listen, then address their issues with potential options and solutions. This way it can at best turn them round to becoming ‘satisfied stakeholders/customers’, or even advocates. At worst vocal, unresolved critics, who can remain a minority especially if they’re increasingly seen as unreasonable by others – they eventually marginalise themselves if their grounds for protest are unsubstantiated, or seen as self-serving or unnecessarily vindictive.
  • Take people on a journey, and show you appreciate their understanding and support, and sometimes even their criticism. This shows you’re human and not part of some disconnected, unfeeling, authoritarian entity. Being seen to be responsive and genuinely valuing stakeholders’ interaction demonstrates that the new sustainability initiative is inclusive, and its success is dependent on their contribution, participation and advocacy. Letting stakeholders see there’s a team of ‘real people’ driving this activity helps enormously in overcoming the resistance to change by those not bought into the new ‘sustainability’ agenda.
  • Reward those who engage and support you by continued collaboration and dialogue. It helps diffuse misunderstanding and builds support when you need it – be it heading off critics and protagonists, or launching the new initiative and recruiting new participants, influencers, and supporters.
  • Harvest all contact and interactions to refine your messaging and communications planning/activity. Being on top of who is saying what (and to whom) is essential so you can manage proactive, reactive and crisis communications activity. Maintaining a holistic view of the whole stakeholder environment in real-time will ensure you optimise your own efficiencies and maintain momentum in moving the programme forward with minimal disruption, while avoiding the incurring of unnecessary costs, obstacles, and time-consuming crises.

For assistance with driving sustainability within your organisation, or discussing any aspects of sustainability contact me directly or though my website

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