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Communicating Sustainability Clearly and Honestly

Posted by Wayne Bates on Sep 13, 2016 8:55:17 AM

Editor's note - Wayne E. Bates, PhD, PE, is principal engineer with Tighe & Bond in Westfield and a facilitator of the AIM Sustinability Roundtable.

Many companies are making progress toward a sustainable business model with initiatives in areas like energy conservation, supply chain, employee engagement, water conservation and community involvement. A common question asked by these organizations is “what efforts and initiatives should we be communicating? To whom should we communicate these efforts? How much information should we provide?”

InnovationSmall-3.jpgThe decision to communicate sustainability programs depends on the nature of your organization, including the type of products or services offered and the interests of stakeholders both inside and outside your organization. Once a decision has been made to communicate, the type and amount of information communicated will depend on the desired level of transparency and stakeholder demands for information.

Sustainability communications should provide insight on where the company has been, where it is, and where it is going on the issue being communicated. For example, a communication on an energy conservation success story should be told in the context of the company’s overall energy goals and how the successful implementation fits into the sustainability strategy.

Most companies with sustainability programs do a decent job of discussing obvious challenges of meeting defined goals and targets. What is often not communicated well are the issues without a solution, initiatives that may be too costly, or initiatives that may take a long time to address. If you don’t acknowledge these unsolved, unfunded, or unplanned issues, someone else may.

Furthermore, if a stakeholder identifies an issue for you and you don’t respond, it may cause a disruption to your business and/or negative press.

Just ask Subway, the fast-food sandwich chain. In 2012 a food blogger reached out to Subway to find out why they use azodicarbonamide (ADA), a bread dough conditioning additive that had been banned in Europe and Australia for health concerns. After not receiving a response from Subway, in February 2014, the blogger publicly called the food chain out for using the additive. She made the point that ADA is used as a plasticizer in commercial products like yoga mats, and encouraged the general public to sign a petition.

The story went viral, the petition received more than 50,000 signatures, and Subway received an onslaught of comments through social media. In less than 60 days, Subway announced that it was removing ADA from its bread in US stores.

Knowledgeable stakeholders know when a company is overemphasizing accomplishments and not discussing certain material issues. Carefully balancing the communication of the goals and targets for on-going initiatives with the acknowledgement of future challenges will let stakeholders know where your organization stands and provide a better understanding of what to expect in future sustainability communications.  

Come join us at the next AIM Sustainability Round Table for a discussion communicating sustainability and hear from expert panelists.

Attend the AIM Sustainability Roundtable

Topics: Management, Sustainability, AIM Sustainability Roundtable

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