Green marketing – The dangers of clueless communication

Ethical Corp logo Kathee Rebernak advocates for organized communication and coordination between the branches of a corporation to ensure powerful and effective green communications.

Posted Aug. 3, 2009

By Kathee Rebernak, Ethical Corporation

In his May column in this publication, Greenwasher bemoaned the
unwillingness of “a major fast food company” to include nutritional
information on its menus and blasted Tesco and Coca-Cola, two companies
that should know better, for ill-conceived advertising campaigns.

The
examples highlight a fundamental disconnect within companies between
the hard work of implementing sustainable business practices and the
communication of those efforts.

Part of the gap might stem from
differing perspectives – for example, reputation management versus
problem-solving – among different groups within a business.
Contradictory marketing messages also indicate a failure to fully
integrate sustainability.

Companies that have integrated
sustainability have also integrated their communication of
sustainability commitments, initiatives, and performance. Those
messages are consistent, balanced and widespread in reports and
adverts, and on websites, intranets, product packaging, even coffee
cups.

On the other hand, lack of integration of sustainability
across an organisation produces confusion about how the company as a
whole addresses its key social and environmental impacts. And some of
the clueless communications that result raise questions about
management’s commitment and whether they “get it” or are more
interested in protecting market share than the environment.

It is all too common for sustainability to be managed in an ad-hoc
manner, with little direction from top management and even less
coordination and communication, internally or externally, of key
issues, activities and goals. The result is sustainability
communications that are more about marketing than transparency.

There
has long been ample evidence of the value of sustainable business
practices. Strategic, integrated communication is critical to a
company’s ability to extract maximum value from those efforts.
Communications professionals must not only understand the company’s key
issues but also the risks and potential benefits of communicating
sustainability efforts.

A strategic approach

That
means understanding and responding to stakeholder concerns with
consistent, transparent, and balanced communication of sustainability
goals and performance. Balanced communication means discussing not only
successes but also challenges. Only by realising that communicating
sustainability requires a more responsive, balanced approach than that
of traditional marketing or public relations can the company make the
most of its efforts.

Integration is the best way to ensure this
understanding permeates marketing, PR and public and corporate affairs.
Here are some key aspects of integration:

1. Noisy executive oversight.
Top executives should voice – loudly and often – a broad-based
commitment to sustainability; establish board-level oversight;
encourage frequent, preferably quarterly, reporting to the board on
activities and commitments; and ask hard questions.

2. Cross-functional teams.
Examine the broadest possible implications of every major initiative,
and, where appropriate, include people from key functional areas such
as finance, legal, strategic planning, research and development,
environmental health and safety, sales, marketing and investor
relations.

3. Pay linked to performance. Financial
incentives instil ownership, on a more personal level, for
sustainability performance. At Novo Nordisk, for example, executive pay
is tied to executives’ ability to meet sustainability targets tied to
financial goals. National Grid ties part of its executive pay to
carbon-reduction goals.

4. Information infrastructure.
Invest in a system for collecting and communicating information on key
sustainability issues and practices, including trends, benefits,
challenges, competitive intelligence, return on investment, stakeholder
input, goals, and performance indicators – in short, the good, the bad
and the ugly.

5. Active stakeholder engagement.
Communication is a two-way street. Active, direct, and ongoing
engagement with stakeholders is the only way to know whether you’re
truly addressing their concerns. Consider convening an external
stakeholder panel to give frank and frequent feedback.

Communication
of sustainability efforts can be either strategic or shortsighted.
Strategic communication is an integral component of sustainability
strategy and supports the organisation’s core business objectives.
Shortsighted communications serve as fodder for Greenwasher. Here’s
hoping that fewer and fewer companies oblige.

Kathee Rebernak is chief executive of Framework:CR and an Ethical Corporation advisory board member.
www.frameworkCR.com

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