Sustainability as an innovation magnet

“Sustainability communications”

Sustainability Communications

September 30th, 2013

Sustainability professionals’ biggest failure since the 1970s is communication. Over the past 40 years, the sustainability movement has been unsuccessful at convincing people that there is a real need for sustainability and many people and organizations remain closed-minded on this issue.

However, sustainability and communications do go hand-in-hand and are often assigned to the communications department. As often these professionals are busy and have limited background in sustainability they benchmark and communicate (as positively as possible) about the issue, although there is no time available to lead the needed change in the organization. This raises the question: how can we communicate effectively about sustainability to engage with different stakeholders and encourage them to increase their sustainability efforts?

Organisations want to know, how sustainability will make money now. Or they might want to find ways for their organization to take a leadership role on a particular aspect – e.g. energy efficiency – in order to improve the company’s standing. These types of concerns are often limited to a short-term and siloed way of thinking. It is our job as sustainability advocates to raise the issue to a strategic level by demonstrating how whole-systems strategic thinking can drive both innovation and marketing to create and capture shared value and be integrated into an entire organization and beyond: strategy, product & service design, processes, purchasing, marketing, HR, ICT, governance, the value chain, etc. This way, we can be more successful in persuading businesses to increase their sustainable innovation efforts on a strategic level. We discuss these issues during our course at La Salle Almere.

The best way to communicate about a company’s sustainability and innovation is to engage with all stakeholders by making it personal. Show what it means to them or their business unit and how they can benefit by making changes. Reporting – about the ambitions, efforts and challenges as well as successes – is important for encouraging more people to get involved, offer solutions and create new opportunities. In this sense, critics are important as well, as they are more likely to take a step back, pin-point the blind spots and offer new viewpoints and approaches that enthusiasts might have missed. Transparency on sustainability and innovation is the best way to engage others and promote progress.

Most of this might seem intuitive, but there is still a lot to do. In order to communicate effectively we need to understand what to communicate about. The ability to demonstrate results are particularly important for businesses to increase buy-in and gather momentum. Additionally, communications about the workings of our social and ecological systems, and about how it is affected by societal behavior can become effective as a way to educate, empower and engage.

Improvements in well informed sustainability and innovation communications are desperately needed in order to create understanding about the challenges facing our planet and inspire people to work towards a sustainable society.

By Berend Aanraad, Sustainability Course Coordinator for La Salle Almere and Executive Director of The Natural Step Netherlands and Edwin Janssen, Sustainability Course Coordinator for La Salle Almere and Founder of FUTURE-PROOFinc.

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