Managing Director, Salterbaxter
COVID-19 has created a unique point in time for business; those that take real action will emerge as winners.
COVID-19 has created a perfect storm with businesses’ behaviours under the spotlight for how they are treating their employees and customers, to how they are helping solve this interlinked health and climate crisis, right through to what they are doing to address social injustice.
Never before have we seen such a spotlight on business – alongside, for the first time perhaps, a global wake-up moment for climate and the interconnectivity of planetary, human and societal health. It’s a Wizard of Oz, draw-the-curtain-back moment for how businesses operate and prioritise issues.
It’s no surprise then that people (citizens, investors, stakeholders, employees…) are scrutinising how businesses operate and prioritise issues such as environmental, social, corporate governance (ESG) and sustainability more than ever.
Kathleen Enright, Managing Director of global sustainability consultancy, Salterbaxter, says now is the time for businesses to back their sustainability ambitions with tangible proof of action.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Enright explains, consumer expectations have changed.
The focus of corporate and sustainability communications needs to shift to real change and proof of action; not the extremes of technical detail or vague slogans
Within this context, sustainability commitments present an opportunity as a new form of corporate communications currency; because people don’t want promises any more, they want proof
“We have seen inside people’s homes, we have heard their children, and CEOs have been emailing customers directly. Corporate comms have forever changed. With that, we are seeing a backlash against really polished corporate messages. This has brought sustainability commitments to the fore as a storytelling asset for the end consumer – yet very few are imagined and written to engage (let alone inspire) a mainstream audience”
Enright adds: “At the moment, it is all in the wording. Companies may use different words like ‘reusable’ or ‘recyclable’, but their packaging commitments fall short of getting employees excited and creating a culture of innovation. The way most sustainability commitments are currently written wouldn’t get anyone excited.”
Relaying sustainability issues through creative storytelling is a much-needed strategy
“Businesses need to be able to communicate their impact and the actions they are taking to be a force for good in a mainstream way. That requires a really robust understanding of the issues, alongside creative storytelling. We are not seeing a lot of the two combined.”
To win, businesses need to embrace the connectivity of sustainability issues
Many businesses’ sustainability commitments and strategies are ambitious and high-profile, but they are often primarily focused on product- or reputation-specific issues, which do not take in the whole picture. What’s needed now is a much more joined-up view of how environmental, social and societal issues are connected.
“Plastics and packaging often get parked in the environmental pillar of sustainability strategies,” Enright says. “But we are not going to find the solution to the plastics and packaging problem until it sits within a connected sustainability framework.”
Systemic change requires a collaborative response from business, Enright adds.
“The type of leader emerging from the pandemic is absolutely collaborative across industries,” she said. “We are currently seeing each company set their own goals and targets based on their own impact, which is too insular.
So, what’s the opportunity?
- Be open and honest about ambitions and progress on sustainability issues
- Sustainability commitments can be a powerful engagement tool in the face of ESG and brand scrutiny
- Unlock growth and innovation from sustainability through the interconnection of all the issues, an ecosystems approach to sustainability strategies and frameworks can unlock that
- Collaborative leadership will be the driver for industry leadership and recognition