How to tell your sustainability story

24 May 2016

Fiona Stephenson, SBN’s Communications Manager, shares six tips to help your business be more effective in communicating your sustainability story. Four businesses show how it’s done.

In recent years many New Zealand businesses have made great progress integrating sustainability into the core of business models. Yet there is still a gap in public awareness of the strides some of these organisations are making. This is despite growing consumer demand for more sustainable products and services.

According to Colmar Brunton, 90 per cent of New Zealand consumers say their purchasing behaviour is influenced by sustainability issues, with 65 per cent of Generation Y prepared to pay more to ensure their purchases are sustainable. So it’s surprising that over two in three people can’t name a leader in sustainability, according to the 2015 Better Futures Report.

There’s evidently a gap between consumer demand and businesses’ ability to resonate with these purchasers of sustainable products and services. For those who manage to bridge this gap, there’s a business opportunity and with Generation Y driving more sustainable behaviour, this opportunity is set to grow.

Six tips on communicating sustainability

  1. Identify – then share – your purpose

    People don’t buy into what you do, they buy into why you do it. One of the most famous protagonists of this mantra is Simon Sinek, whose widely-acclaimed TED talk focused on how great leaders inspire action. Consumers want to choose brands with a purpose, so what you stand for is as important as what you sell.

  1. Keep it simple

Woody Guthrie wrote, “Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple”. According to Colmar Brunton, 81 per cent of New Zealanders think the way businesses talk about their social and environmental commitment is confusing and hard to understand. The challenge is to simplify your message. Sustainability is full of jargon and acronyms, many of which will be unfamiliar to your audience. So throw them out the window, including the connotation-laden word ‘sustainability’ if necessary.

  1. Engage in social media

The growth in social media over the past decade has caused massive change in the way that businesses and customers interact. Social media and sustainability have in common authenticity, transparency, community and creativity. By bringing them together you can be very successful in communicating your sustainability story.

The Sixth Annual Social Media Sustainability Index, published by Sustainly (UK) in March, identifies the top 200 global companies effectively communicating sustainability through social media. It’s worth checking them out to pick up some ideas.

In joint first place are GE, through making science and sustainable innovation fun, and Unilever, whose brands include Dove (focusing on female self-esteem), Ben & Jerry’s (mobilisation around climate change), Hellmann’s (reduction of food waste) and Comfort (using less water for rinsing). Other companies making the top ten are Patagonia, Sainsbury’s, General Mills, Aetna, Philips, H&M, Microsoft and CVS.

Twitter is the leading social channel through which the top 200 companies choose to communicate sustainability, closely followed by LinkedIn and then Facebook.

  1. Know your audience

Know who your audience is and how it likes getting information. For example, different social media channels, such as Facebook and Twitter, have very different audiences. The most successful communications campaigns tightly define their target audiences and develop messages appropriate to them.

  1. Be authentic and transparent

Above all, people look for respect and honesty from companies. Your personality and values should permeate everything. Be authentic, compelling and inspiring.

  1. Make sure your glass is half full

Psychologist Niki Harré writes, “If we are interested in advancing sustainability by working with people … then it seems critical that we do whatever we can to promote a positive atmosphere”. So frame your language and thoughts positively to get engagement, for example by focusing on solutions rather than problems, and offering a positive vision for the future.

If you want people to love your brand, effectively telling your sustainability story should be an essential part of your communications strategy.

How it’s done

Four businesses share insights on effectively communicating sustainability.

Air New Zealand

(topped 2016 Corporate Reputation Index)

“Sustainability relates to our contribution to New Zealand, environmentally, socially and economically, and we want to encourage full spectrum thinking about sustainability in New Zealand overall. It’s important for New Zealand, for larger brands such as ours, to take a leadership position on something as fundamentally important as this and to try to demonstrate it through action,” says James Gibson, head of sustainability at Air New Zealand.

“Like any communications it’s important to understand your audience. We communicate our sustainability messages through our own channels, such as our magazine, in-flight screens and EDMs [email direct marketing], where we can have stories that relate to our customers, such as around elements of operational efficiency.

“Last year we released our first sustainability report, targeted at people with a strong sustainability interest. We also held breakfast events in Auckland and Wellington to engage with stakeholders – investors, customers, suppliers and the sustainability community – in a way that’s direct and enabled us to tell our story in a longer way.

“Ultimately sustainability is good for business. We don’t want the sense that it’s just philanthropic – it’s an investment. It reduces costs, it helps manage your supply chain effectively, it can reduce risk, encourage innovation, and make your business more attractive to employees. It’s good for your brand.”

Eat My Lunch 

(a business based on a ‘buy one, give one’ model whereby for every lunch you buy, the business gives one to a child in need. It won the Communicating Sustainability category in 2015 NZI Sustainable Business Network Awards)

“Simplicity is what works really well for us. Eat My Lunch is quite a complex operation and there are many messages we could be talking about, but bringing it back to the key driver – ‘buy one give one’ – is the thing that really attracts people. That concept is key to our business, since the more that we sell, the more good we can do,” says founder Lisa King.

“Having a purpose at the heart of everything we do is how we grow, not only in attracting customers but also supporters and corporates with similar values. Transparency is core to our work too.

“To communicate our sustainability messages we use every touch point: social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn), PR and even labels on lunchboxes. We identify which channels are most useful for which messages. Facebook is a really big platform for us and our messages there are all about the kids. For Instagram it’s about the food. For our PR it’s very much about the social mission.”


(named as one of the top five sustainability firms by consumers in a survey by Colmar Brunton in 2015)

“If you want to stay in business, you’ve got to make sure that what you’re doing today you can do tomorrow. Ultimately sustainable businesses will be the only ones left standing,” says Malcolm Rands, CEO, ecostore.

“Eighty per cent of the growth internationally in supermarkets is in companies that sit in the areas of environment, social and health – these are the brands that are growing.

“ecostore considers itself a health company, so our key sustainability messages focus on health, which people can relate to more easily than messages about saving the world. Essentially people want to look after themselves, their family and the place they live in, so our messaging needs to relate back to that and our new catchphrase is ‘safer for you’.”

Meridian Energy

(named as one of the top five sustainability firms by consumers in a survey by Colmar Brunton in 2015)

“Our desire to create a better energy future is at the very heart of our business. As such, Meridian has developed a sustainability framework that gives us a long-term focus and shapes our daily operations,” says Jason McDonald, Head of Sales and Marketing, Retail, Meridian Energy.

“This framework focuses on our commitment to renewable energy, water stewardship, engaged communities, smart energy solutions, working sustainably and financial sustainability. 

“It touches all areas of our work, meaning our staff, customers and stakeholders can see a direct line of sight between our actions and our commitment to sustainability. It also means that every day we’re living our purpose and working towards creating that better energy future.”

This article was first published in NZ Business magazine, May 2016

You can find out more about communicating sustainability at SBN’s 2016 conference, Communicating in an Age of Authenticity, at AUT University on 31 August.

Watch Fiona talking about communicating sustainability at our 2015 conference.