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Accountability for sustainability is rising - here are 3 ways businesses can pass the test
March 16, 2023
As sustainability becomes an increasingly pressing issue, it’s inevitable that the demands and expectations placed on organizations are also on the rise. The impact of climate change is driving campaigners and citizens to use all means at their disposal to keep governments and companies to account, establishing a new era of environmental accountability.
As a result, consumers, employees and investors are demanding greater transparency and measurable results, and they’re not afraid to go as far as litigation to force companies and governments alike to take action. In France for example, food company Danone has been taken to court by three environmental groups for failure to reduce its plastic footprint sufficiently and violating a law that requires large companies to address their environmental impact. In England, environmental lawyers, ClientEarth, have filed a lawsuit against the directors of Shell over their climate strategy, which they say is inadequate to meet climate targets and puts the company at risk as the world switches to clean energy.
On the surface, this feels like a real success moment for climate activism, but there are also concerns that it could result in a counter-effect, known as ‘green-hushing’, whereby companies deliberately downplay their environmental credentials or simply keep them confidential to avoid being called out.
With the EU Parliament soon requiring large companies to regularly disclose their societal & environmental impact and sustainability risks, there has never been a more important time for companies to seriously assess how to best communicate their sustainability practices. There is a fine balance to strike, and the current landscape can be difficult to navigate.
Porter Novelli's "Igniting Impact, Accelerating Sustainability" report demonstrates that accountability is not only essential but can also lead to a stronger, more resilient business. But how can organizations get it right and close any unattended ‘say-do’ gaps when the net is closing in fast?
1. Embrace sustainability as a core value
Companies need to embrace sustainability as a core value and embed this into their overall business strategy, rather than view it simply as a reporting or tick-box exercise. By prioritizing sustainability in decision-making across all facets of the business, setting ambitious goals, and making sustainable practices a part of day-to-day operations it is easier to take accountability for your own actions before anyone else spots the gaps and makes meaningful progress.
2. Use stakeholders as a sounding board
Listening to crucial feedback from stakeholders, including employees, customers, and suppliers, can help companies accelerate sustainability efforts. By involving stakeholders in the sustainability journey, companies can gain valuable insights and perspectives that can inform decision-making and drive progress, as well as avoid reputational issues along the way.
Take last year’s World Cup in Qatar as an example – a hotly anticipated global event, which brought the concept of “sportswashing” into the mainstream. Many companies’ decisions to sponsor the event left consumers outraged and conflicted in light of Qatar’s stance on LBGT+ rights and treatment of migrant workers.
Despite this being an incredibly complex issue, a temperature check with key stakeholders (many of whom ended up being at the forefront of displaying negative criticism) could have helped avoid serious marketing missteps.
3. Channel transparency as a ‘PR superpower’
Transparency is crucial to building trust with stakeholders, influencing others and making progress towards sustainability goals. As PR professionals, we understand that companies need to be open and honest about their progress, including both the successes and challenges. But in this age of accelerated accountability, it’s even more important that every function within the corporate sphere understands this too. After all, it’s transparency that allows stakeholders to see the progress being made and for weak spots to be addressed.
A recent study by the PRCA Climate Misinformation Strategy Group found 89% of UK PR and communications professionals have attempted to push back on clients greenwashing. And rightly so - results from the same survey revealed that 71% of consumers would stop buying from a brand if they knew it had misled its customers regarding its environmental impact.
Eliminating greenwashing has not only become a moral necessity, but also a sensible business practice – and by reinforcing transparency we have the power to create real impact.
As accountability grows, it’s tempting to take the view that organizations should only be communicating their sustainability efforts when they’re in a position to show they’re ‘perfect’. But as anyone who works in this space knows, no organization is, or ever will be perfect. The difference lies in an organization’s intentions. How many of us would be prepared to forgive a company for its mistakes if its intentions were honest and credible, and rooted in measurable and meaningful impact (versus using sustainability as a marketing or reputational ploy for example)? Use this as your guiding star, and you’re well set up to deal with the complex and urgent demands this new age of accountability brings.