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Can a conversation save the planet?

By Denise Melanson, Vice president, social impact & sustainability



The Drum Network article

This content is produced by The Drum Network, a paid-for membership club for CEOs and their agencies who want to share their expertise and grow their business.

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May 9, 2024 | 6 min read

There are more ways than one to speak about sustainability, says Denise Melanson of Wasserman. Which is lucky, because it's a conversation that we need to get right.

A white letter 's' with a black outline painted onto an orange wall

It's important to find ways to effectively discuss the 's word' / Mike Hindle via Unsplash

I was recently part of a roundtable discussion with teams from live event venues on the subject of sustainability. No matter how many catastrophic facts or alarming forecasts were discussed, it always came back to: “How can one venue change the world?”

But once the conversation shifted toward long-term financial benefits and the halo effect for active brands – which in turn means increased revenue – the mood shifted. Suddenly it was viable for one venue to do something to help their community exist more sustainably.

This speaks to a fatigue around issues essential to societal survival. At some point sustainability became more about politics than what it actually means; UCLA Sustainability defines it best as ”the balance between the environment, equity, and the economy.” Still, just hearing the “S word” makes some people shut down.

Linguistic discrepancies can lead to disagreement among folks who all want the same thing – obstructing progress because of semantics, not substance. A problem we all face is dividing us. This means we have an urgent challenge: to discuss a problem we all need to solve together, but where the rhetoric of the discussion is usually a non-starter.

Light at the end of the sustainability tunnel

But there’s hope. Many eyes light up when addressing eventual cost savings and improved optics. This comes down to two types of audiences: those who care, and those who only care when they feel the burn. And the uninformed typically associate sustainability with plastic straws, but it's much more than that.

Businesses need to care because people care more than ever. Per Harvard Business Review, “Consumers—particularly Millennials—increasingly say they want brands that embrace purpose and sustainability. Indeed, one recent report revealed that certain categories of products with sustainability claims showed twice the growth of their traditional counterparts.

But it’s difficult to make businesses care as the political, linguistic divide has made it hard to assess and act on the divided consumer sentiment around factual, inevitable disasters. In surveys, consumers claim concern about sustainability and climate change, but when it comes to paying more for products or changing their consuming habits, most aren’t truly committed. Without full, unified support, it’s harder to move forward with major changes.

It all begins with the right conversations. Because people care about the outcome of sustainability but not the process of discussing it, leaders for change need to reframe the discussion: win over challengers by speaking less about the practice of sustainability, and more about the world it creates for them.

Three ways to discuss sustainability

The rhetoric that “the world is on fire and it's your fault” is not an effective motivator, or it would have worked by now. But people love to hear “I know how to improve the bottom line of your business.” So, lead with that.

The pivot will shift the conversation, to address the financial savings that arise when leaders choose to invest in long-term sustainability. That renewed focus will not only save money but build a better business and uplift the company’s profile.

Start the conversion with financial futures, which happen to be greener.

The discussion that “companies should fear their actions being labeled as ‘greenwashing’” will lead to immediate shutdowns. Again, consider the truth people want to hear: that the "greenwashing" label is easily avoidable if actionable steps are taken to move forward sustainably.

Gone are the days when “hot air” statements on a company's website were the proper approach. Businesses can move beyond those statements when they understand the positive impact that meaningful sustainability investment has on their reputation. Once lifts in brand perception and integrity are realized, a company will see overall gains in finance and brand optics with both their staff and consumers.

Start with an aspirational brand position, and what it would take to live up to it.

The “s word” dismissers get bogged down in the overwhelming depth of the conversation. Sustainability seems intimidating, and folks often think there is too much required between costs, time, and products. It drives that “I can’t fix this” negativity.

Consider the truth they’d love to hear: that with continued advances in sustainable vendors, products, equipment, and supplies, impact is more accessible and cost-efficient than ever. And that drives a conversation around how “I can do my part more easily these days.”

With more companies investing in sustainability, there is now a tried-and-true, collective, systemic way forward. Once you make the choice to tackle the issue in a positive, affirmed manner, not only will your company see long-term financial gains, but an ease of mind.

Start with the idea that the endgame is important but not as urgent as your first step.

When discussing sustainability, know your audience and prepare accordingly. If history has shown us anything, it's that innovation and change are inevitably going to happen. So why not make that change positively, with new conversations inviting people to create new futures?

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