Memo to corporate America: Stop saying, “We’ve always done sustainability!”

by Oct 6, 2021

Shelton Stat of the Week

69% of people living in America are moderately to extremely concerned about greenhouse gas emissions. — Eco Pulse® Wave 13, December 2020

Shelton Group has been helping companies articulate their sustainability stories for 15 years now. And I can’t tell you how many times, at the beginning of a client relationship, I’ve heard some version of:

“We’ve been doing sustainability since before it was called ‘sustainability!’”

I heard it again last week at the Fortune Global Sustainability Forum, but with new words meant to give it more gravitas: “Sustainability is in our DNA!”

Please stop.

Stop because it short-changes the complexity and depth of the climate situation by making it seem like we could just dial up your efforts a little bit and everything would be OK. And stop because it begs this response: “Really? If you’ve been doing sustainability for decades, why is the planet (and the human race) in the trouble it’s in?” And corporate America doesn’t really have a good answer to that.

Has corporate America done amazing things to move our society forward? Yes! Have many of the companies I encounter done wonderful things for their people, their communities and for the conservation of resources? Yes! I’m a capitalist and have pushed all my chips to the center of the table on business, betting that the power of competition, innovation and quarterly profits will in fact spur all companies to make huge strides in caring for people and the planet in the name of the almighty dollar.

But saying you’ve been at sustainability for decades, or that it’s a part of the purpose upon which the company was founded, or that it’s in your DNA just isn’t true for most companies (save the likes of Patagonia and Seventh Generation, which are both environmental organizations cleverly disguised as consumer goods companies).

It isn’t true because sustainability is fundamentally about eliminating greenhouse gas emissions. Most companies have only started measuring and managing GHG emissions in the last 5-10 years — and many haven’t even started.

Recycling, recyclable materials and recycled content ≠ sustainability.

Cleaning up parks, planting trees and giving to charity ≠ sustainability.

Being an ethical corporate citizen ≠ sustainability.

All of those actions can be part of an overarching ESG program, and they’re all wonderful things to do. We can tell compelling stories about them that build brand preference and even drive sales. But, alone, they don’t add up to “sustainability.”

You can clean up all the parks you want — you can clean up the oceans, too — but you need to identify how many greenhouse gas emissions those actions will actually eliminate. Are they enough to eliminate all the carbon stemming from your company’s existence? If so, awesome, go shout it from the mountaintops! If not — and that’s what the answer will likely be — then get started on the hard work of eliminating the use of fossil fuels to electrify your plants and transport your goods.

Once you’re doing that, THEN you can credibly talk about your efforts on sustainability. And you can say something like, “We’ve been good stewards of our communities and our air, land and water for decades. And now that we understand our impacts on the climate, we’re working to be good stewards on that front, too.”

News of the Week

Mars pledges fresh climate action to achieve net zero emissions across full value chain
PR Newswire

Mars’ most recent pledge provides a great example of a company that is taking greenhouse gas reduction seriously. This PR Newswire article not only discusses the extent of this pledge on Mars’ operations but all of the other initiatives they are embarking on to become a sustainable company.
Read more…

McDonald’s targets net zero emissions by 2050, from meat to energy

Brands with international supply chains can pull on that chain to create a domino effect for change. This Reuters article covers how McDonald’s is doing just that so they can contribute to the UN goal of net zero emissions by 2050.
Read more…

Good Company

Americans are putting their wallets where their values are. They buy brands (or those brands’ competitors) based not just on corporate behavior, but on how that behavior is perceived.

So how do you protect your bottom line and safeguard your reputation, all while making the world a better place? Well, good works. That’s the simple truth, and as you’ll learn in this report, Shelton Group has the research to back it up.

You’ll also learn how your brand can apply our insights to share your good stories in ways that captivate the public’s passion – so you can gain a market advantage.

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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.

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