How to avoid the communication pitfalls, and truly succeed in embedding sustainability into your organisation

There has never been as much awareness of the climate crisis and the sustainability challenge. Organisations and individuals want to have a positive impact and for sustainability to be more than a buzzword. However, we know there are challenges in going from words to action; indeed long-running debates or conversations leave participants more confused or frustrated and can even set the sustainability agenda back.

How can leaders and organisations handle these conversations to bring about real change?

Common pitfalls when talking about sustainability

The conversation in organisations often focuses on some key themes and approaches to the global position, and while appropriate in some contexts, they have their limitations if used in isolation.

In businesses, it is tempting to lean towards objective, fact-based communication: “scientists have measured this indicator and the projections are catastrophic…” however, behavioural science shows that facts alone rarely change minds, and therefore prevent leaders from changing course.

Alternatively, emotional appeals (“imagine the world being left behind for your children and grandchildren”) fail to engage the rational aspects of decision-making, especially important in a business context.

Similarly, fear-based narratives, often with hyperbole, can overwhelm individuals, or even force a counter-reaction and defensiveness. Ultimately, this can lead to inaction.

Having goals is useful, yet many of the targets being worked towards are distant (such as 2050 mandatory net zero), lacking the immediacy required to inspire action.

More philosophically, it can be tempting to focus on typical business indicators to drive change by speaking the language of the businesses. However, we must be wary of entrenching behaviours and activities that have contributed to the challenge we face.

Reimagining the narrative of crisis to the possibilities of transformation

All of the above elements of the sustainability story are valid, and important. And of course, it is true that the ecological system is showing signs of crisis – any front page shows record-breaking temperatures every month, the damage to nature, the impact of pollution, etc

Yet, a ‘crisis’ implies a moment of pain to be survived before returning to the status quo. What is needed here is not, for example, like the temporary stringent lockdowns and restrictions on liberties of the Covid-19 crisis, to be suffered and then return to normal. Taking just one of many possible examples, thinking about mobility: the future we envision does not simply see a switch to clean vehicles, but rather, a better way of moving around human-centric urban environments that promote regenerative ecosystems and thriving biodiversity.

Similarly, the ‘crisis’ narrative implies a false binary. Net zero is not a case of win or lose. Every emissions reduction makes a difference and contributes to reduced warming.

And, when we think about the individuals leading the charge – a great driver of activity is competition and keeping up with respected peers. Recognising the wealth of opportunity yet to be tapped, seeing others forge ahead on this new path, and fear of being left behind, is a powerful motivator also.

Rather than speaking of constraints and sacrifice, sustainability as the next great transformation promises progress; a better way of doing business; a world we all want to live in.

So, what should you do?

Of course, it is about more than the discussions and motivations; delivering this real change must be backed up with action. The communication strategies above still have their place – but in service of an inspiring vision of a resilient and healthy future.

Focusing your sustainability journey on this can help you ensure you take meaningful action and deliver real impact:

  • Vision: Establish a clear vision with an aligned team and defined success criteria, incorporating non-negotiables and unique value propositions. Share this widely and refer to it.
  • Celebrate success: Consistently recognise and build on even small successes. Show the impact of action.
  • Decision making: Ensure clear prioritisation in decision-making processes to consistently support sustainability, whilst being transparent about any trade-offs.
  • Capabilities: Build capabilities through appropriate resourcing and training at different levels for the whole organisation. The sustainability journey is the responsibility of the entire organisation, not a particular department.

Towards organisations with sustainability truly embedded

The sustainability conversation can be fraught with challenges as organisations try to balance many competing concerns. By reframing the narrative and focusing on actionable steps, we can embed sustainability into the core of our organisations and society.

Author: Judith Richardson

Judith Richardson

Managing Principal

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