The commitment to sustainability continues to be the focal topic with conversations around the global goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, transitioning to clean energy and sustainable recovery from Covid-19.
However, even with WEF, rarely a day goes by without a story relating to climate change appearing on the news and, as a result, the everyday consumer’s awareness of environmental issues has never been higher.
With an increasing appetite from the public to tackle climate change, their favourite brands will be held under greater scrutiny to be sustainable. It’s clear then, that there is room for PRs to play a more active role in enabling this transparency – so how can we create stories to invoke real change as opposed to instigating greenwashing in the industry? And how can PR pros effectively communicate the sustainability message in their PR strategy?
Power of PR
The role of the PR professional has evolved massively in the past few years. Responsiveness has quickly become a PR pro’s secret weapon – and it’s not just answering emails quickly, it’s about staying in tune with the latest trends and issues that are affecting the industry and the wider public.
A PR team can have a huge impact on society. From shaping opinions to bringing awareness about an issue they would never have known about; in this way, PR can accelerate positive change across a wide range of audiences. It’s clear that there are already a number of brands committed to sustainability that the public knows about such as Unilever, Nestlé and Ben & Jerry’s. However, it’s never been a better time for more brands to up their game and deliver a greener image. Brewdog, for example, brought innovation and positive change to the table with the world’s first carbon-negative beer business.
Further to this, consumers are becoming increasingly mindful of environmental issues, that they will switch brands, even at a higher cost. In fact, according to a 2020 study by the National Retail Federation, 57% of consumers would willingly change their buying habits to help reduce the negative environmental impact.
Consumers care about sustainability and will support brands that do. The onus is now on their PR teams to use this opportunity to communicate that story in a compelling way.
Be wary of greenwashing
So, we’ve talked about the opportunities and benefits of communicating sustainability well. But it can also be done badly – the Kendall Jenner Pepsi campaign is the perfect example of coupling social responsibility and complete tone-deafness.
As more companies move towards sustainable practices, they also change the way they communicate these environmental actions to stakeholders and consumers. An unfortunate result is that some PR and marketing professionals inaccurately promote these green claims which mislead the consumer – this is “greenwashing.”
Consumers expect transparency and honest engagement with companies in terms of its sustainability initiatives, and never has this been more important than today. From smokes and mirrors to outright lies, companies can claim their products are sustainable with little evidence to back this up. For example, in 2019, H&M was dealt with a major PR blunder for its “conscious” clothing line, quickly deemed as “greenwashing” by the industry as there was little indication as to why it was more sustainable.
But sometimes, greenwashing is not intentionally misleading but the result of poor boardroom decisions. In 2020, Oatly announced an investment by Blackstone, a company that had previously been accused of investing in deforestation projects. The outcry from climate activists was unsurprising, and the much-loved brand received a huge blow to their image. The PR team, however, did a good job in dealing with the unexpected bad publicity and dealt with it proactively and honestly. Despite this, there’s no doubt that the long-term effects of this decision are what Oatly needs to worry about.
Intention is the cornerstone of effective comms
As public relations professionals, we are in a unique position to shift opinions, raise awareness and influence behaviours by controlling how, when and in what way we communicate.
Delivering the right message, whether sustainability or anything else, can be challenging and we can often fall into the trap of fearing about sounding inauthentic. When communicating sustainability, building a compelling message with transparency and honesty is key to gaining the trust of the consumer and raising the profile of the company.