Jun 11, 2024
Ann-Kathrin Marggraf

A new era of sustainability communication: How companies communicate credibly

Sustainability communication is currently undergoing a significant transformation: it is changing from attitude communication to action communication.

For a long time, it was en vogue for companies to talk about their values and goals with regard to sustainability. Statements such as "We will be climate-neutral by year x" or "Sustainability is part of our DNA" were enough for a long time. But those days are over.


Sustainability communication put to the test

This is because consumers are taking a closer look, also thanks to critical journalists and consumer protection organisations that scrutinise companies' statements. One prominent example is Lufthansa's statement that "guests can offset the CO2 emissions of their flight directly on board". However, it is not just websites, LinkedIn posts or product adverts that will soon be the focus of more attention. Sustainability reports in the context of the EU CSRD Directive (Corporate Social Responsibility Directive) will also be scrutinised more and more for accuracy and inconsistencies in the future.


From lip service to strategic impact

It is good and right that sustainability communication is becoming more precise. After all, we won't get anywhere by paying lip service. Ultimately, it shouldn't just be about image and riding a social trend wave. It must be much more about generating a real strategic impact with entrepreneurial action. After all, requirements such as the CSRD, the Supply Chain Responsibility Act, the EU Green Claims Directive or the Sustainable Development Goals are not a job-creation measure, but are imperative in view of the worsening climate crisis.

It is not necessarily just about reducing CO₂ emissions, conserving resources or establishing a functioning circular economy - social aspects and corporate governance issues are also part of sustainability communication along the ESG (environmental, social and governance) criteria.


From attitude to action

Today it's about backing up statements with figures, data and facts and, very importantly, talking about unpleasant things. Sustainability is not a to-do that you complete. It is a process or rather a journey that never ends - and it can be rocky or arduous at times.

Complaints, but also critical voices, are increasingly ensuring that companies no longer talk about their sustainability measures, also known as greenwashing. Caution is certainly advised, but silence cannot be a solution if a company is taking demonstrably sensible measures. Here too, it is advisable to think in stages rather than in final targets. It is important to talk not only about successes, but also about challenges.

 Tips for successful sustainability communication

  • Rethink your frames: The power of words lies in the fact that they often take on a life of their own the more they are used, even if they are misleading. One example is the term "climate neutral". Check your communication for buzzwords and see what valid alternatives there are.
  • Think about all target groups: European and national legislation and requirements are increasingly regulating CSR communication and turning it from a story into a data set. Today, it is no longer just the communications department that is responsible, but also the legal departments and CSR managers who draw up reports. It is not only important to pull together internally, but also to prepare the information correctly for all recipients: Stakeholders or the professional audience have different information needs than consumers, and your communication strategy should cover this.
  • From the small to the big picture: real green electricity, recycled paper and an e-fleet are good, but almost taken for granted. Ask yourself which measures are really special to emphasise and embed the whole thing much more in the long-term corporate strategy. Why is the company taking a measure, what is it aimed at, how long will the process take and what should the result be?

Explain your motivation. Due to legal requirements and publicity, it is now common practice to take sustainability measures. This is no longer a unique selling point. Only those who manage to credibly explain that there are values behind the communication that are lived can be authentic and convincing.

CSR communication is a journey that never ends. Don't think about the end, talk about the journey.


Define values, act, talk about them

It is not the commitment but the action that gives your sustainability communication credibility. Invest time in the strategy and initiate action, then you can talk about it in a watertight manner. Remain critical, scrutinise frames and avoid copying and pasting supposedly overused terms such as climate neutral. Those who communicate honestly and transparently will be convincing in the long term. Good and inspiring examples include the outdoor and activism company Patagonia, the sustainable search engine Ecosia, GLS Bank and Share.

Remember: it's not about being perfect straight away. All companies face the same challenge and are literally in the same boat. If we want to learn, we should talk to each other openly.

Let‘s drive your success story.