Build consumer trust with effective sustainability communication.
By Erika Roshdi
As the focus on sustainable development intensifies, companies are coming under increasing pressure from consumers and government to be more transparent and accountable in reporting activities. Given growing scepticism towards corporate communications, consumers now want proof of organizational commitment to sustainability. This presents a significant opportunity for businesses to gain a competitive advantage and enhance their reputation by providing evidence of their activities and progress towards their goals using dynamic online communication tools.
Consumers today are hard pushed to avoid green marketing claims. Whether it is an eco-friendly product or service, ethical employment practices or sustainable procurement, they are faced with a constant and evolving stream of ‘green’ corporate messages. There is also growing awareness among businesses that such claims will soon join the myriad marketing messages that consumers learn to ignore.
Demand for transparency
A recent survey by the Guardian on Consumer Attitudes and Perceptions on Sustainability - September 2010 reported some respondents voiced frustration at the lack of clarity they perceive in corporate communications, calling for straightforward and honest evidence of sustainability activities. These findings are supported by an IBM survey reporting 50% of respondents rate the way in which businesses convey their sustainability policies as “bad” or “very bad,” with only 5% selecting a rating of “well” or “very well.”
The problem, as highlighted by these surveys, is not in the sustainability agendas of organisations, but in their efforts to communicate them. The advertising battlefield is littered with empty claims that were quickly exposed and retracted, and businesses are now less willing to follow in these footsteps. Such organizations place sustainability at the core of their top-level strategies and are making progress. They choose, however, to keep it quiet.
Unfortunately, progress that’s unreported is progress that has not taken place, as far as stakeholders are concerned. The lack of clarity and transparency in corporate communications is damaging, not only to consumers, but to other stakeholders. The importance of internal communication, in particular, is often overlooked, which results in employees missing the chance to share in organizational success.
Transparency is also important in building trust throughout the supply chain, acting as a motivator for change where there are advances in operations and practices. With a growing focus on sustainability throughout product life cycles, clear and honest communication across the supply chain is crucial.
Reporting on progress
Given the long-term nature of sustainability, it is not sufficient to provide static, once-a-year snapshots of activities to stakeholders. Although annual reports are now increasingly supplemented by sustainability or corporate responsibility (CR) reviews, there is still much unawareness of the tools available for ongoing communication between businesses and their stakeholders.
It is crucial that, in moving forward with sustainability efforts, initiatives and practices, progress is communicated to stakeholders with clarity and honesty. Providing evidence of policy implementation, whether through statistical representation or case studies of best practice, is the only way to build trust among stakeholders and reap the competitive advantages.
The Web presents significant opportunities for businesses to build a two-way dialogue with stakeholders. The use of online communication tools, such as StakeholderTALK™, enables organizations to provide dynamic, up-to-date information about their activities. The Web provides a platform from which organizations can keep key stakeholders involved in important developments and decisions, as well as giving them proof of their efforts towards corporate sustainability goals. The provision of such evidence enables businesses to demonstrate their commitment to top-level targets and overcome issues of distrust associated with false marketing claims.
Building trust is particularly crucial in the supply chain, where both buyers and suppliers require accurate information about business activities and proof of commitment to specified goals. Using online evidence databases provides these stakeholders with examples of best practice, helping to facilitate clear and honest communication about progress towards sustainability. The Morgan Sindall Group’s Sustainability Case Study Engine, deployed using StakeholderTALK™ Case Study!, is an example of an effective evidence database that can be quickly updated and easily searched through using specific criteria.
Another tool that is becoming increasingly important in the ongoing reporting of business activities is news and information channels. These provide audiences with up-to-the-minute updates and also allow organizations to discern the information that is particularly relevant for key stakeholder groups. Traffic on these dedicated sites can be tracked and analysed, giving businesses a clearer picture about stakeholder interest and expectations. Unlike hardcopy annual reports, online tools enable businesses to gain feedback on their communications, even if it’s simply through tracking site views and visits.
Words speak louder than actions
Businesses wanting to remain ahead of the curve in their policies must also move forward in providing evidence of their implementation. One crucial way to avoid the pitfalls of solely paying lip service to sustainability initiatives is to offer stakeholders continuously updated proof of progress.
About Erika Roshdi
Erika specialises in Sustainability Communications at IMS Consulting. The company develops and delivers sustainability communication strategies.
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