Article: It’s Not Easy Being Green

Author: Shawn Warmstein
Date: Shawn Warmstein

As more companies pursue becoming environmentally friendly, marketers are being tasked with both inspiring consumer’s purchases and end-to-end interactions with a product. 

Imagine a global corporation that has invested BILLIONS to overhaul every step of production – from manufacturing to materials to transportation – to become more sustainable. For the communications team, the natural step would be to create a dynamic campaign showcasing the company’s climate commitment and take a deserved (albeit humble) victory lap, right?  

With evolving ESG guidelines and metrics such as Scope 3 emissions (those caused by a company’s suppliers and customers) becoming central to measuring progress, intention and reality are often far different.   

Numerous studies have shown the consumer’s desire for companies to take a more proactive and progressive approach to going green, complemented by a willingness to pay more for corresponding products and services. However, what has not been as central to the climate conversation is the consumption of these products or services, which can have their own harmful environmental impact.  

For example, during a recent Fortune roundtable about corporate sustainability, Virginie Helias, chief sustainability officer of Procter & Gamble, said, “consumer use is over 80% of our emissions…it’s basically the heated water you use when you shave, or when you wash your hands, your clothes, your dishes.”  

To date, climate-related Public Relations programs have balanced corporate risk mitigation and transparency efforts with the desire to inspire consumer action and provide education. However, looking toward 2025, 2030, and 2035 benchmarks, the way climate progress is measured, whether by shareholder perception or Securities and Exchange Commission-required disclosures, is changing and so too must communication efforts.  

To help meet evolving standards, marketers will have to adapt their role to not only inspire purchase but influence new end-user behaviors. It won’t be enough to convince a customer to buy your shampoo, you now might also ask them to take shorter or less frequent showers. How will this impact PR pros? 

While a new challenge, three core PR strategies will be central to these efforts.  

  1. Play the Long Game – Going green is about protecting our planet for future generations, not boosting sales for the next quarter. To that point, communication programs must be rooted in sharing a brand’s vision for sustainability and outline what is going to happen not just today and tomorrow, but next year and the five after. Consumers want to understand the tangible change companies are working toward, what the measurable impact will be, and how you are making a greater commitment to foundational innovation. This strategy also promotes accountability and, by sharing their vision, companies have the chance to control the narrative, rather than playing catch-up after a bout of negative press or activist stakeholder rumblings.  

In addition, communicating how your company is fighting climate change creates the ability to seek partnerships in achieving goals and enlisting customers in this process. 

  1. Building Teamwork Through Transparency – As noted, Scope 3 emissions are a major challenge for corporations in their push to go green. If held responsible for these impacts, how can a brand get consumers to change their behavior? The first step starts with transparency and earning buy-in for participation in the circular economy.  

While consumers understand that a change in materials products and their components are more recyclable and generate less waste, what they aren’t as educated on is the impact of their consumption.  

To receive help in Scope 3 emission reduction, brands must proactively talk about the environmental impact of their products throughout their entire life cycle and how consumers play a central role. Companies should make their case with numbers, simple language that emphasizes collaboration and unity vs. guilt and blame and provide clear recommendations as to how customers can aid in progress.  

  1. Reward New Habits – Once consumers understand how they can help brands in taking the right steps to fight climate change, it should not be assumed they will fall in line and immediately cooperate. Instead, their new behavior should be incentivized.  

Whether through recognition, exclusive benefits, or some type of cost savings, rewarded customers are likely to also become more loyal, and through repeated action, educated on what a brand is doing to help the environment, translating into their additional advocacy as well.  

While the PR function cannot be the tail that wags the sustainability dog, its role in creating positive climate impact is undeniable. Integrating into operational decisions can lead to better results with customers and help identify blind spots for companies investing in our collective future. Just as corporate and consumer interests must come together for sustainability success, so must communication efforts in speaking to Environmental, Social and Governance efforts.  

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