Data from the government and independent sources show that U.S. businesses are having a more positive impact on the environment, even if more companies right now prefer to walk rather than talk. While many companies are content to reap the cost savings associated with greening their operations, they're missing an enormous opportunity to market their green practices and drive sales.
Corporate anxiety about publicizing sustainability initiatives comes from a variety of sources, though the mindset can be categorized into three groups:
If your fears about raising the awareness of your company's sustainability activities fit into one of these categories, then here are five best practices that can help insulate you from a worst-case scenario.
Goals Not Gains
In "Doing Good: Business and the Sustainability Challenge," the Economist Intelligence Unit shows that a majority of companies that have seen their share prices rise at least 50% during the last three years, believe that having social and environmental goals are an important priority. When promoting your company's sustainability initiatives, put them in the context of your aspirations for the next five or ten years. You'll need buy-in from executives when defining social and environmental goals, and make sure they are goals your company is comfortable committing to publicly. Focusing on the long-term will make it harder for skeptics to be critical, because no one wants to be seen as discouraging your efforts.
Establish Your Own Baseline
A recent Ipsos Reid study found that 70% of consumers either strongly or somewhat agree that when companies call a product "green," it is usually just a marketing tactic. How do you convince them that your product truly makes a difference? Create your own baseline from business or product data of two or five years ago, and then show the progress you've made to date. Demonstrating how your company has reduced the carbon footprint of a product's supply chain since 2005 will do more to convince consumers than simply stating a product is "eco-friendly."
Signal Before You Move
When you want to change lanes on the freeway you use your turn signal as an advance notice to other drivers, and if someone is in your blind spot they may honk their horn to let you know they are there. Promoting your company's sustainability initiatives requires a similar approach. Before you announce sustainability goals or reveal progress made on initiatives, send up a flare. Critics may speak first and identify themselves. The advance notice will give you the opportunity to moderate your skeptics' expectations and better position what you have to say.
Despite the current absence of an overarching organization to validate green claims, smaller scale endorsements are available. Customers can present you with sustainability awards. If you are marketing consumer products, research opportunities for GreenSeal or EcoLogo certification. Hire an independent and respected consultant to measure the carbon output of your company's complex industrial network and certify that it's better than it was two years ago. There are a number of ways you can obtain the explicit or implied endorsement of third parties, which will show you're committed to being accountable.
Be Honest with What You Can Do, and Redirect Critics to Areas Where You Can or Are Improving
A recent report from Edelman, Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability Communications, showed that transparency in communications is one of the three most important activities for a socially responsible company to engage in. If you miss your sustainability targets, it's okay to acknowledge skeptics' concerns. It's easy to turn defensive and argumentative when a critic hits you with "What about this area?" or "You call that progress?"
Even when you've fallen short of your goals, the truth of the matter is that you are still making progress and you are addressing as many areas as you can. Focus on the positives in your message - areas where you are meeting or exceeding goals. When progress is slow, emphasize your efforts to be diligent and thorough. Explain how your careful, thorough approach is more interested in real results, and tie it back into the effective pursuit of your social and environmental goals.