The theme for Earth Day 2021 is Restore Our Earth™. In 2021, debates on the issues around sustainability belong just as much in the boardroom as they do in the muddy fields of Glastonbury. However, as brands clamour to earn brownie (or should that be greenie?) points for their corporate sustainability credentials, the word ‘sustainability’ has begun to lose its meaning.
Unlike Instagram would have us believe; sustainability is not all about what brand of shampoo you use. This year’s Earth Day theme reminds us that a healthy planet is not just an attractive option or a nice idea, the coattails of which brands can ride. The focus is on natural processes, emerging green technologies, and innovative thinking to help restore ecosystems. The idea that we can make small changes to mitigate climate change, or simply adapt to it, has been resoundingly rejected.
The UK has announced ambitious goals as the first major economy to set a target for net zero by 2050 – and this week it enshrined a new target in law to slash emissions by 78% by 2035. The pressure on our industries is increasing - the UK’s sixth Carbon Budget will be the first to incorporate the country’s share of international aviation and shipping emissions.
Many scientists and economists refer to our planet as having nine boundaries which include climate change, ocean acidification, ozone depletion and more. Given the seriousness of these boundaries and the well-defined scientific thresholds they represent, businesses need to respond quickly to bring about the drastic change needed to restore the Earth.
So, what on Earth Day does PR have to do with it?
Public relations is far more than the art of persuading journalists to cover a business in a positive light (though we do happen to excel in this!) The job of a PR professional is to ask important questions, to take ethics seriously (we are a chartered profession with a Code of Conduct), and to think creatively about how we can communicate complex ideas.
A green industrial revolution is already underway. Businesses must be prepared to transition; however, the operational challenges cannot be underestimated. The layperson is likely to care about issues like carbon emissions, however, they may not be aware of the significant investments required or the issues faced by businesses.
It is not so difficult, in the B2C space, to persuade a consumer to switch to a more environmentally friendly brand of detergent, for instance. In the B2B space, the changes required are orders of magnitude greater and far more complex. Consider an importer that must now integrate slow shipping into their business model, a national food retailer whose packaging must all be switched to reusable, recyclable or biodegradable materials, or a manufacturer who must now design their products with the circular economy in mind (especially with the new ‘right to repair’ laws set to become part of the UK’s regulatory regime).
The road to sustainability for these businesses is not a simple one, and it will be paved with operational complexity. It will take skilled PR professionals to communicate the rationale behind the steps businesses are taking, and garner support among the public and the media.
Greenwashing: how to damage your business and the planet in one fell swoop!
In short, greenwashing involves misleading the public about a brand’s commitment to the environment. Responsible PR professionals know well the risks of greenwashing: negative publicity, trending on Twitter for all the wrong reasons, severe brand and reputational damage, and a loss of confidence and trust from investors and stakeholders.
Communications around sustainability should seek to avoid generic terms like “eco-friendly” and “green”, and instead define in clear terms what the business is doing to improve its impacts on the planet. For any environmental claim, transparency is crucial. Reporting on environmental impacts is key, and compliance-level changes should never be promoted as more than what they really represent.
Where an in-house marketer may feel pressure to develop materials that promote their company in a ‘green’ light, an external PR agency will seek to guard its own reputation and the CIPR membership of its staff through diligence in sustainability communications. We can ask the difficult questions of C-level executives – before they are asked by a journalist or a customer.
Appointing external PR practitioners whose job is to be aware of current affairs, as well as the landscape of the national and business press, means gaining a truer perception of what your messaging to the media and your customers should really contain. A strategic PR plan will include provision for how each step in the transition is communicated and amplified, seeking positive and appropriate media coverage that builds trust and understanding.
Embracing new ways of thinking and doing
Restoring our Earth means innovating for powerful change. Brands that have invested in developing emerging technologies or drastically changing their ways of working will lead this charge.
However, without credibility and brand presence, all this innovation will translate into scant results for the planet. Whether your business is ahead of the curve, or still catching up, PR has an incredibly important role to play in the perception and adoption of change.
For large companies in professional services, fast moving consumer goods or industrial sectors, it is unlikely that these changes will happen overnight. For brands in transition, careful and intelligent communication is especially key. Your PR strategy should include provision for building trust at every step in your business’ unique pathway to sustainability.
For those brands that have made significant investments in becoming more sustainable, there is a different challenge: to rise above the noise and ‘green fatigue’ created by competitors. The brands that fare well in 2021, no matter what point they are at in their transition, will be the ones that value the power of communication.