More and more companies are starting to communicate their sustainability efforts externally - however, scratching the surface can often reveal a concerning lack of substance behind the marketing.
From ‘greenwashing’ to ‘box-ticking’, the pitfalls of running and publicising a sustainable initiative are wide-ranging - so, how do you do it properly?
This week, our Head of Brand Partnerships Adam Walker spoke to two marketing sustainability leaders to hear what businesses need to know before earnestly embarking on a new sustainable effort.
In this article:
- Where to start with a business sustainability initiative
- Key considerations before starting a sustainability effort
- Starting out - the journey to B Corp
- How to properly communicate about sustainability - internally and externally
- The common pitfalls of sustainability projects in businesses
- Managing internal pushback and getting buy-in from stakeholders
- How often to assess sustainability - and B corp - practises
- The best advice for anyone starting their initiative
This session round-up is part of our "Against the Grain" series. Download our free white paper "Against the Grain: Marketing Done Differently" to discover more.
What does sustainability look like for your business?
“Being a B Corp means that we're committed to doing the right thing”
Paul Sinclair, Marketing Director, Zen Internet: From a sustainability standpoint, first and foremost, we're a B Corp. And being a B Corp means that we're committed to doing the right thing.
We have been doing the ‘right thing’ for 25 years, but being a B Corp means that we've had to adhere to certain criteria and go through a very long checklist, which was a good couple of years in the process.
“A very rigid, very formal way of addressing sustainability as a topic”
Zen Internet is also the longest running independent broadband company - this means we're not shackled by meeting shareholder demands, or a ‘profit at all costs’ mentality. So, we've got freedom to do the right thing.
We've got commitments and improvements that we've committed to over the years that follow. Really importantly, we've written into our articles (what we call our articles of association) that we will balance people and the planet alongside profit. So that's a very rigid, very formal way of addressing sustainability as a topic.
“Net zero is not a ‘nice to have'”
Net zero is not a ‘nice to have,’ it's an essential part of our business strategy.
It was back in June of last year that we formally announced our commitment to net zero by 2028. Since then, a few things have changed. The parameters of what good looks like has changed.
It’s now not just about measuring our own contribution to carbon; it's about looking at the full end-to-end supply chain. So, it’s everything from the products and services that we buy from our suppliers through to the way that consumers engage with connectivity and broadband in their own home.
“Our big focus with outward communications is the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals”
We do that through our magazine (Creature & Co. are also publishers of National Geographic Kids), and we do that with our brand partners, aligning ourselves with the UNSDGs (United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.) So, our big focus with our outward communications is the UNSDGs.
“Sustainability isn't just about the environment, it's everything from our social impact to how we treat our staff”
When it came to talking about how we look inwardly, we needed to find a process to be able to do that. B Corp was the kind of parameters that show what sustainability should be like in a business.
Sustainability isn't just about the environment, it's also about our social impact and how we treat our staff. We learned a lot going through that process.
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Where can businesses practically start with their sustainability journey?
“Tapping into the people across the business where sustainability is a passion point”
Paul: For us, part of the catalyst was a bit of two things. First, you need to start from the top down. It’s making sure that the exec team and the people around the boardroom table are advocates of doing the right thing by people and the planet.
Secondly, one thing that's helped us Zen is tapping into the people across the business where sustainability is a huge passion point. It’s finding those that have a real interest in the topic that really want to do something about it and become the voices within the business.
These are the folks that make up our environmental steering group. A lot of what they do isn’t their day jobs, they’re doing it because they’re really interested in making a difference.
“Use external help along the process to look at the business as a whole”
Peter: We used external help along the process, looking at the business as a whole and devising our policies. You then find people within the business who are who are fundamentally engaged by making the company that they work for more sustainable.
You need bottom-up and top-down buy-in to start it because it's a lot to do. The impact for people outside of their day jobs is quite huge.
What should Business Leaders consider before starting their sustainability efforts?
“If you don’t believe you have the capacity to be able to do that internally, get help”
Peter: For me, it came down to internal resource and the ability to spend the time that's required to go on that sustainability journey.
You also need to be fair to your staff, and if you don’t believe you have the capacity to be able to do that internally, get help. There are organisations out there that manage the whole situation without that challenge.
Because of what we do and how we communicate sustainability, getting people on board internally was not a problem. But I think depending on what your business is, you must align your communication with your team to match your values.
“Making sure that it’s all science-based”
Paul: We also used an external third party to help us along the way and keep us honest. But that step of understanding your current impact.
It’s not just environmental, it’s people, it's community…it's the full breadth, so making sure that it's all very much science-based is quite a big challenge.
Which key stakeholders in the business should you bring onboard at the start of a sustainability project?
“Changes are a big consideration for your shareholders and owners of the company”
Peter: Shareholders are important, especially if you're going for B Corp certification. Changes to your Articles of Association is a big consideration for your shareholders and owners of the company.
The idea of going from making sure you make as much money as possible to taking the approach of putting people and the planet as high as profit means that as staff members, we can criticize decisions made by shareholders aren't the right ones for people and planet.
Getting them on board at that point was challenging at first, but the realization that future proofing your business and understanding that B Corp style businesses do generally about 25-26% better than other business in terms of their profit makes it less of a hard job.
“Finance have turned this into a very real business case, and facilities have done massive things for our objectives”
Paul: Teams like finance have helped us to turn some of this into a very real business case. And then we've got teams like our amazing people in facilities here at Zen that have done massive things around air quality, meters, refurbishment, energy use etc., and all that kind of stuff that plays a huge role in in our objectives.
How do you get buy-in from someone who isn’t proactive with sustainability?
“There are massive financial benefits to being a B Corp”
Paul: We’ve got a founder who absolutely believes in this and always has done, so it’s been arguably slightly easier for us from a founder standpoint.
When you look at the benefits of being a B Corp, or a business that's focused on sustainability, there are massive financial benefits. You've got a much more engaged and happy workforce, which then translates into better customer experience, which turns into more meaningful margins and profits.
All of the evidence that you read time and time again suggests that doing this is the right thing to do, both in terms of people, the planet and for the businesses’ long-term health.
“It’s important to make things simple to understand”
Peter: If you have shareholders or an MD who is very focused on building building profit, you focus on those points and make them realise the benefits.
It’s important to make things simple to understand, which is our mantra for the business externally, so we use the same process internally as well.
Why did you choose to gain B Corp status, and what advice would you give for others?
“We were formalising a lot of what we had been doing and were going to be doing anyway”
Paul: Getting B Corp status came about from formalising a lot of what we had been doing and were going to be doing anyway. It was a good yardstick to ensure that we were doing the right thing, and it gave us a framework to be able to assess ourselves against others.
Another thing that we really like about B Corp is that we've achieved a certain status, but there's also a very clear framework and set of parameters to allow you to stretch that even further.
“Setting objectives and workstreams feels like a good place to start”
I'm not sure I'd advise a full-on B Corp accreditation from day one, because it was a huge multi-year commitment, but some light touch assessments of your current position and setting objectives and workstreams feels like a good place to start.
In terms of who can do this, anyone in any team at any level can get involved and be that catalyst.
“We tried to find something that would help us on that journey to make sure we were ticking the right boxes”
Peter: Starting our journey to B Corp came from the feeling that we were doing the right thing in certain areas, but not necessarily being completely convinced that we were.
So, we tried to find something that would help us on that journey to make sure we were ticking the right boxes, and becoming a B Corp did all of that.
“Work with a with a consultant to get an understanding of where you are”
Going through the B Corp certification is quite a big beast, so start by doing some initial ‘B Corp lite’ style surveys and questionnaires.
Work with a with a consultant who will ask you lots of questions about your business and get a very rough understanding of where you are.
They will then come back with an outline of what you will need to change before going through that B Corp certification.
When it comes to marketing sustainability, how do you communicate your sustainability efforts authentically?
“Make it part of the business strategy as much as possible”
Paul: You need to make it part of the business strategy as much as possible. It needs to be highly visible. Our CEO talks about it in his weekly vlog, it's part of internal newsletters and we talk about it in social media a lot.
“Talk about the positives, but also the negatives”
Peter: We produced our first ‘purpose and impact’ report last year and did that in a simple, informative and interesting way. It was an internal document pushed out to shareholders and staff to talk about the positives, but also the negatives. It’s so important to be transparent about the journey you’re on.
“There’s a big piece around education”
Paul: There’s also a big piece around education here too, not just internally but externally. Particularly around the subject of net zero.
We did a survey recently and around 44% of the respondents didn't even know what net zero was or where to start.
“We’re producing sustainability documents that are consumer-focused”
Peter: Communications to your consumers about what you're doing is still a new thing for businesses to be able to achieve. We’re now producing sustainability documents that are consumer-focused that are simple and easy to understand.
Sustainability is a journey, and we’re in the process of showing that timeline, and where we want to go in the future.
What are some of the common pitfalls when implementing sustainability within a business?
“The amount of education and reports is difficult - you need to know what you’re committing to”
Paul: We made our net zero commitment for 2028, but as we've started to understand more about what that means, and linking into the science-based targets, it's looking incredibly complicated.
So, the amount of education and reports is difficult. In terms of a pitfall, you need to know what you're committing to and make sure it is genuine and honest. If you’re some way from achieving it, you've just got to be clear and set out that the way it is.
“Honesty is very hard for businesses to get their heads around”
Peter: Honesty is very hard for businesses to get their heads around, but there is a trend now moving towards that honesty which is allowing them to be a bit more open.
Do you ever get internal pushback when trying to implement positive sustainability changes?
“If you're communicating the commercial benefits, people should soon come round”
Peter: There are elements of what we've had to do that are more costly, such as printing the magazine on recycled paper, so margins can be slightly lower in that respect.
But if you're communicating why that has commercial benefits, people should soon come round.
How often should you assess your sustainability practises and efforts?
“Have that regular drumbeat at the right levels”
Paul: For us, we’ve got a series of regular sessions in the calendar to understand and assess the strategy, roadmap, and objectives. It’s also a standing agenda on the board. It’s just making sure we have that regular drumbeat at the right levels.
You need to have the right conversations happening at the right levels with the right frequency.
“Your B Corp certification is assessed every two years”
Peter: We will continue to work with our external consultant who is just ingrained in this day-to-day all the time and will make us aware of kind of any changes.
The other thing to add is that your B Corp certification is assessed every two years, so it's evaluating your business against those areas and always constantly trying to achieve more points in comparison to what you did previously.
What’s the best advice for avoiding internal fatigue and maintaining cross-team projects?
“Ensure that people have the space to do it, and to do it right”
Paul: We’ve not seen any sort of negative issues as part of a cross-functional task force.
I think one of the reasons for that is we ensure that those people have the space to do it, and to do it right, and to help them to understand the importance that it has within the business. You need to give them that authority, space, and remit to crack on and to do a good job.
“Communicating what’s happening and what you’ve managed to achieve”
Peter: The only thing I would add would be around celebrating achievements that have been made within the business.
It’s all about communicating what’s happening and what you’ve managed to achieve. It’s nice to have a reminder of where we’ve come from and what we’ve achieved. It stops people from feeling like they’re a long way off the ultimate goal.
What is the best advice you could give to anybody starting on sustainability across their business?
“We've all got to start somewhere.”
Paul: Start small. It can seem quite scary and daunting, but we've all got to start somewhere.
Start measuring, start talking about it, start asking questions and start being honest about where you're at where you want to get to and take it from there.
“Utilize the passion and energy of your staff”
Peter: You will have staff members that are engaged with this topic internally and who would be more than happy to get involved in trying to make the business better, so utilize this passion and energy.
Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions - there's a huge B Corp community out there who can provide services, and help you look at your business objectively.