The five dilemmas of sustainability communication

… and how to deal with it

It is sensitive to communicate about the sustainability of your brand. More than half of consumers have more confidence in a brand if it shows that it has a positive social impact, according to surveys by MarketResponse, b-open and IVRM Reputatie among 1,000 Dutch consumers. But then the communication about it must be credible. And according to 52% of consumers, this is not the case. In addition, seven out of ten consumers believe that companies often make their products appear more sustainable than they actually are.

The line between right and wrong is thin. Communicating credibly about sustainability goes beyond ticking a checklist of tips. Sometimes they contradict each other. Against the background of five dilemmas, I give you insight into the tensions and I help you make the right choices for your brand.

1. Evidence vs. simple message

Transparency and concrete evidence are most important when it comes to the credibility of your commitment to sustainability. This means that you show what activities have been carried out or what concrete results have been achieved, for example with regard to a product’s CO2 footprint. However, this can quickly become too much or too technical for the average consumer. They want a simple message about a sustainability requirement and do not need to be thoroughly informed.

Check the level of interest of your target audience, avoid vague terms (such as eco, eco-friendly or climate neutral), make the impact tangible through comparisons where people can imagine something (eg: this product saves as much energy as 100 households in a week) , name specific activities, products or results, use well-known quality brands or experts for objectification, refer to your website or other media where people can find more evidence.

2. Image – reality gap

Many large companies and multinationals have a negative image when it comes to sustainability. They start at a disadvantage: They are contacted with skepticism and suspicion, as they have spent years chasing profit and consumerism in the consumer picture and now suddenly claim to want to create a sustainable world. Even though they actually tell you what sustainability initiatives are being taken, in the eyes of the consumer, it’s too big a step – unbelievable – as they do not think is appropriate for the brand. It does not feel like authentic.

Communicate gradually, in small steps, be modest in your tone of voice and media choices, do not exaggerate, let business and marketing communications complement each other.

3. Ambition vs. current performance

To inspire consumers, it helps to show an ambitious goal (eg ‘to live fossil-free within a generation’, ‘towards a slave-free chocolate world’) and thus connect it with values ​​that your target group finds important. But it should not be an empty promise. Consumers also want to know where your business is now and what steps you have already taken to contribute to this goal.

Communicate ‘bottom up’ through your products or concrete actions, show how they contribute to your higher goal, dare to share dilemmas about financial and sustainability goals, create understanding.

In the field of sustainability, consumers expect action from companies

4. Transparency vs. interest

Only 10% of consumers expect no sustainability communication from companies. Half expect companies to be transparent about the way they do business sustainably. Two-thirds also believe that companies should be more active in publishing their CO2 emissions and how they want to reduce their footprint. Consumers want companies to show what they do, but are not always interested in that information. A limited proportion (35%) find it important that customers are kept informed about sustainable initiatives.

Give relevance if you also want to reach the group with limited interest, show what other benefits are, or how your sustainability commitment contributes to those benefits, then make it part of a broader message, state it as a plus, and provide security for them to be a sustainable purchasing product.

5. Strengthening of customer vs. own business operations

Nearly a third of consumers expect companies to inform and inspire them on how to live more sustainably. Sometimes it is also useful and attractive because the largest part of the environmental impact in the chain lies with the end user. But consumers also expect a business to take responsibility for its own operations. If they do not know it, it is not credible for them to promote sustainable behavior.

First, show what steps you have taken in the internal business operations and what the results are before you strengthen the customer. Practice what you preach.

In the field of sustainability, consumers expect action from companies. Not communicating is not an option. How you handle the five communication dilemmas depends on your starting position. Understanding the dilemmas will help you make the right choices for your sustainability communications. And it also makes the difference for your brand between just wrong or completely right.

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