Why You Need a Sustainability Narrative

It is not enough for your company to commit to sustainability.  You must find a way to effectively tell your sustainability story with meaning and purpose.

Panelists at TSSS

Phillip Haid, Steven Sage, Claudio Gemmiti and Eric Whan discussion the importance of a Sustainability Narrative at TSSS

On September 30th, 2014, over 100 sustainability change agents gathered for a TSSS event at  Ryerson University’s Chang School (with almost 100 more joining via LiveStream and Twitter) to explore the idea of a “Sustainability Narrative” and its value to a company.

Crafting a Sustainability Narrative that will engage consumers was discussed by a panel of four industry experts: (Click here to read the panelists’ bios)

KPLogoDraft08-14-v2What is a Sustainability Narrative?

The discussion began with the panelists offering their definition of a Sustainability Narrative.  The panelists clarified that a Sustainability Narrative is much more than a description of an environmental footprint (e.g. sustainable supply chain, empowerment of women in the workplace, fair labour practices). Haid explained, “A Sustainability Narrative is a story about how you’re going to improve the lives of people and the planet.  A great narrative is one where you understand how you fit in it, why you should care about it and why it’s important to you.”  Whan added that it is important to emphasize purpose – why you do what you do, rather than simply what you do. He also discussed the value of connecting with the consumer demographic known as the “Aspirationals” – people with typical consumer values (e.g. interest in style, desire to be influential, materialist) but also sustainability values. For companies to drive real change and growth, their Sustainability Narrative must connect with the Aspirationals who are eager to be engaged as partners and want to collaborate with companies to innovate and create new products.

Purpose driven organization

Whan defined five criteria for a purpose driven organization: There must be a Vision that is ambitious, shared, understood and tied into the organization’s main business. Goals must be defined by the Vision and absolute (rather than relative). The power of the Brand must be harnessed to focus the company internally and mobilize externally.  There must be Transparency with timely and appropriate access to information and Advocacy with regulators, customers and suppliers to achieve the Vision.

Haid told a story (which he admitted is probably not genuine, but still illustrates a great point) of President Kennedy touring NASA in the 1960s and asking a man who was sweeping the floor, “What’s your job?” to which the worker replied, “To put a man on the moon.” In a purpose driven organization, everyone is clear on the Vision and their role within it.

Overcoming Consumer Disconnect

While 90% of Canadians say they want to buy more sustainable products, only 25% actually have green products in their homes. True “Green” consumers are  already buying “green products”, but they represent only a small segment of the population. How do we convince more of the Aspirationals to join in? Whan explained that part of the problem is that we use language that consumers don’t relate to and/or understand. People are overwhelmed by the doom and gloom message that we may not be able to sustain ourselves as a planet. People continue to say one thing and do another; our current failure to bridge that gap represents an opportunity.

At the end of the day…we have to support things that sell, but sometimes a leap of faith may be required to put the resources behind a product line before its sales are proven.

Gemmiti explained, “At the end of the day, we’re retailers, and we have to support things that sell,” but he also emphasized that sometimes a leap of faith may be required to put the resources behind a product line before its sales are proven.  He spoke of how Loblaws pushed forward with its Sustainable Seafood commitment, based on an appreciation that there was some understanding of the issue amongst consumers and leadership’s conviction that it was the right thing to do, even if it meant facing the possibility of lost sales.  This stance resonated both within the company and with consumers and proved to be a successful initiative. Sometimes there must be a belief that, “We’re going to do what’s right, and if sales come, even better,” explained Gemmiti.

Resonating with Consumers

A mistake that is often made is that we tell the story about the company, rather than helping consumers see how it connects to their daily lives.

One of the greatest challenges in connecting in a meaningful way with consumers is that they are confused by the multitude of claims and certifications.  Haid explained that often we bombard consumers with messaging and information rather than engaging with them. “A mistake that is often made is that we tell the story about the company, rather than helping consumers see how it connects to their daily lives. We erroneously suggest that purpose and profit are at odds. Look at a company like Patagonia– they have built a brand that has such authenticity and leadership at its core and that unites purpose and profit. The problem is many senior leaders aren’t willing to put their neck out and say this is where we’re going.”

Making the Counterintuitive Relatable and Understandable

Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world (after oil). There are social costs and environmental impacts associated with its production, processing, packaging and transport. Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) of single serve coffee in individual pods compared with traditional brewed coffee presents what may be seen as a counter-intuitive conclusion – despite the increased packaging, the single serve product has no greater environmental impact than the brewed coffee, since 70% of the LCA is in the growing and transport of the coffee (traditional brewing results in significant coffee waste).  In fact, with Club Coffee’s compostable single serve pod, LCA shows that there is even less impact than with traditional brewed coffee. The challenge for Club Coffee is to create a Sustainability Narrative that simply conveys the results of this complex LCA to the consumer, who likely erroneously assumes that the packaging waste of single serve makes it less sustainable than brewed coffee. Haid suggested to Gemmiti that Club Coffee launch a “Be a Pod Hero” campaign to effectively share the message with consumers.

Sage shared another LCA result that can be counterintuitive for consumers.  LCA analysis of 100% recycled content (which requires de-inking and other processing) compared with FSC certified virgin fibre toilet paper shows that they have equal impacts. Consumers who express concern about environmental impacts of toilet paper generally believe that 100% recycled content is the better environmental choice.  Thorough LCA can deliver counterintuitive results for consumers – an effective Sustainability Narrative from a trusted company helps consumers make the right choice, even when it might contradict their intuition.

Delivering “Goodness”

Sage explained, “Consumers, in the end, really just want to know that they’re buying a good product from a good company.” Consumers don’t want to do all the work of figuring out and measuring “goodness”; a well communicated Sustainability Narrative engages consumers and allows them to appreciate the “goodness” of a company.

Gemmiti expressed that a key component of a successful sustainability initiative and program is that you focus on areas that are part of your corporate culture and important to you as a business.  For example, Loblaws chose to focus on areas such as being a good employer and reducing energy costs.

Numbers are Vital

Since the key metric in a company with a product to sell is sales, then for a company to be really serious about sustainability, it must be measured right inside the profit and loss columns.

As always in a discussion of sustainability, the need for relevant metrics was emphasized. Once you have defined your focus, then metrics are vital both to hold yourself accountable and to get buy-in. Haid stated that since the key metric in a company with a product to sell is sales, then for a company to be really serious about sustainability, it must be measured right inside the profit and loss columns, not outside. “I believe sales is the metric.  If we’re really serious about moving the needle on sustainability, we have to move to look at a sustainability budget as we do all other aspects (e.g. marketing, communications).”

The Win-Win possibilities

Great win-win sustainability campaigns were discussed to illustrate measurable sustainability gains with a great Sustainability Narrative.  Intermarché, a French supermarket chain, marketed “Inglorious Food” – awkward and strange looking produce was rebranded and discounted to sell.  And sell it did.  This campaign reduced food waste and increased product sales – a true Sustainability Win-Win.

In Pampers’ “One Pack=One Vaccine” campaign, for every box of diapers sold the company contributed to vaccination of children in developing countries. This campaign resulted in increased product sales and supported a meaningful health initiative – Win-Win.

Identifying Strong Sustainability Narratives

After the panel presentation, an engaging breakout discussion was facilitated by Wesley Gee of The Works Design Communications and Leslie Bennett and Elizabeth Dove of Open Spaces Learning. Each group identified companies with a strong sustainability narrative and evaluated how they have built a genuine connection with customers.  The recurring themes that emerged among these success stories were a clear vision and message, simple language that avoids sustainability lingo, a story that draws people in and makes them want to be involved, and the presentation of a clear path to help people make choices that reflect their values.

Narrative with Purpose

More than ever consumers want to live meaningful lives and engage with brands that are driven by purpose. They want to trust that a brand is making good choices for them.  They don’t want to read a full Life Cycle Analysis report to know whether they should choose paper or plastic bags, or toilet paper made from 100% recycled content or FSC virgin fibre. They want to identify companies and brands they trust so that they can consume with confidence knowing that they are doing the right thing.

A clearly presented Sustainability Narrative is an authentic story that engages consumers and assures them that when they do business with your company, they are collaborating with an organization that shares their concerns, reflects their values and is actively working not only to make a profit but also to improve our world.  So go forth with purpose, and tell your story!
TSSS is widely recognized as Canada’s premiere forum for dialogue and problem solving among sustainability professionals. Each year over 1000 sustainability change agents attend TSSS events to exchange ideas and delve into trends, risks and opportunities that are presented by our shifting business model. Follow us on twitter and/or LinkedIn

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