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How to Tell Your Company’s Sustainability Story

Experienced journalists recommend breaking through the noise with strong data, human interest, and an even tone.

In a panel discussion, business journalists provide their recommendations for effective communication on sustainability issues. Emily Chasan is the sustainable finance editor at Bloomberg News, Curt Nickisch is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review (HBR), and Bryan Keogh is senior editor for business and economy at The Conversation. They share what kinds of sustainability information different audiences value. Chasan focuses on investors, Nickisch on a general business audience, and Keogh on the broader public.

The discussion occurred at NBS’s Sustainability Centres Community Workshop in summer 2018.

Below are excerpts from the conversation, lightly edited.

It’s tough to stand out

Emily Chasan: I hear a lot of the same story over and over again, because I have literally every company and every investor tell it. They’re all just in different phases of their sustainability journey. A lot of times, when people first start, I hear exactly the same thing I’ve heard from 20 other banks.

Show how sustainability relates to your business

Emily Chasan: My colleagues and I are always trying to get the sustainability conversation out of marketing and into how it is material to the business. A good example of materiality is a story I did with the CEO of Danone, the yogurt company. He has this goal of turning basically the whole company into a B-Corp. He even took out a loan that ties the sustainability goals and his B-Corp certification process to the rate that he gets on that loan from the banks.

Sometimes companies come to us to talk about charitable or impact investments that aren’t necessarily the biggest sustainability issue for their company. They can be surprised when we bring up a separate sustainability issue like waste collection — and we say, well, that’s much more material to your business.

Provide strong data

Emily Chasan: Investors still lack the data they need to integrate sustainability into investment information. Companies will say they’re really confident in the ESG data they’re reporting and the sustainability info they’re reporting, but only 29% of investors are confident in that information. That’s something to think about.

Give people news they can use

Bryan Keogh: There’s potential if we look beyond the partisan nature of some of these issues…. If people hear about climate change, that kind of turns them off. But there’s great demand for learning about the complicated marketplace of products. People want to know what’s sustainable and what’s not. What’s the difference between free range and cage free eggs? Is there a sustainable smart phone out there?

For my older sister, who’s very conservative, climate change is a nonstarter for her. But there are ways to engage her on these topics. She’s interested in reading about ways to live a more sustainable life. She cares about companies that are doing things to be more sustainable.

Engage on a human level 

Curt Nickisch: Whenever I hear sustainability stories, it sounds like a lot of kale to me and not enough smoothie. Sustainability information seems serious and kind of boring. I think people are more likely to pay attention if there’s just a little bit of kale in the smoothie.

For example, work in something about people. I think people care about people. A lot of people don’t care about saving the planet, but they do care about people.

We love to watch people work. If somebody takes action or young people in an organization change something, that provides a natural narrative that people would be interested in.

I did a story once about an electricity demand response company. The CEO of the company had a picture of him in his office hugging a tree. I put that detail in the story. The number of people who told me afterwards that they really liked that story was amazing, and I don’t think it was because I did a great job of explaining the electricity market.

Don’t alienate a potential ally

Bryan Keogh: If you come off very political or insensitive or offensive to a certain type of person, who doesn’t already presume or believe the things that you believe, that person’s not going to read what you share, right? You’re not going to change their mind or push the needle.

If you want to push the needle, which is all I think you can do with people who are strongly opposed psychologically, you have to find a way to take a step back and say, “Where can I create that common ground and just present the evidence?”

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    The Network for Business Sustainability (NBS) is a non-profit advancing sustainable development to build a fairer and more environmentally sound future. We aim to improve business practice by facilitating knowledge sharing across an international community of business leaders, scholars, students and policy makers. With these stakeholders, we co-create high-quality content that enables practical action. Our content focuses on 6 critical sustainability themes, from climate change to social justice.

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