How to avoid backlash for telling your sustainability story

by Feb 22, 2024

Shelton Stat of the Week

85% of people around the world are interested in hearing from companies about their efforts to reduce GHG emissions. — Eco Pulse®, 2023 (Global)

As I write this, I’m fresh off of this year’s GreenBiz conference where I participated in two panel discussions on sustainability communications. Amid all the backlash we’ve seen aimed at companies for their social impact programs, and the class-action lawsuits we’ve seen filed over environmental claims, it’s understandable that some companies’ knee-jerk reaction is: “We don’t talk about sustainability!” (Insert the tune to the Disney song, “We don’t talk about Bruno” here).

But as you’ve heard me mention multiple times here: people WANT to hear from companies about what they’re doing to solve the world’s biggest problems. And if they don’t hear your story about that, they’ll assume you don’t have one, and soon, they won’t want to work for you or buy from you.

So how do you communicate your planet and/or people story without running afoul of the culture police (or actual police)? There’s a two-part principle to follow:

  1. If your sustainability story is tied to your business and marketing strategy, there is no backlash. Now, that doesn’t mean there might not be upset or disagreement with what you’re doing and saying. But if your marketing efforts and communications are tightly aligned with what your company has determined is needed for future growth, then if people are upset, your CEO has a rationale to stick to.
    The compare and contrast examples here are Nike and Bud Light (and, full disclosure, Shelton Group was not involved with either of these clients; this is my analysis as a sustainability marcomm outsider looking in). Nike clearly made a strategic business decision to breathe new life into its brand by supporting Colin Kaepernick a few years back. Did people get upset, burn their Nikes and vow never to buy from Nike again? Yes. Did the company’s brand value and sales go up? Yes. When the backlash came, Nike execs stuck firm to the decision and didn’t back down. They knew that the core Nike consumer would be aligned with supporting someone who was unafraid to stand for something.
    Bud Light’s marketing team, on the other hand, clearly did not make a strategic decision to walk away from conservative young men who want their beer to help them seem macho in favor of focusing exclusively on the LGBTQ community. We know they didn’t make this decision by the way they immediately waffled once they got hit with backlash for supporting a trans influencer. Sadly, their parent company, Anheueser-Busch, has long had a high rating with the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, the largest LGBTQ advocacy/lobbying organization in the U.S. With Bud Light’s “we didn’t mean to upset anybody” response to the backlash, they ended up alienating both their young male macho target audience AND the LGBTQ target audience.
    The moral of the story: spend the time to ground your sustainability communications efforts in your business and marketing strategy.
  2. The connective tissue between your business strategy and your sustainability comms strategy is materiality. If you conduct a thoughtful, robust materiality analysis, you’ll know exactly what people, planet and governance issues are seen as material to your stakeholders. Then you can set goals and an action plan for addressing those issues. Those goals and plan should and can connect right to your business strategy/plan for growth.
    KIND Snacks offers a great example of how this has been done well (and, full disclosure, KIND is a Shelton Group client). Their materiality analysis revealed that almond growing was a material issue for them – because almonds are a key ingredient in KIND bars AND they require a lot of water to grow. Once KIND understood this challenge, they set a goal to have 100% of their almonds grown via regenerative agriculture practices on a mass balance basis by 2030. Then they launched a program called the KIND Almond Acres Initiative to begin testing/learning/bringing that goal to life AND bring their stakeholders along on the journey. Here’s a great, on-brand video that tells the story in a way all their audiences can understand:

    Did KIND experience some negative comments on social media? Yes. Did they back down or apologize for their efforts to make growing almonds more sustainable? No. They didn’t need to – because, to point number 1, this program is tied to a goal, which is tied to a material issue, which is tied to their business strategy for growth.

So, as in so many things in life, the answer to how to avoid backlash for telling your sustainability story is NOT to hide your light under a bushel. The answer is to be true to who you really are.

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Our annual Eco Pulse® study has gone global. We surveyed people in 12 countries to better understand how they conceptualize an eco-friendly person — and what that means for companies’ sustainability communications. Our latest free report reveals how local cultural values connect to local sustainability concerns and provides specific communications guidance for brands operating and/or selling around the globe.

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About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.