Could BSR17 foreshadow a change in business sustainability communications?

Businesses have long seen the advantage of communicating their efforts towards becoming more sustainable. In fact, as far back as 2011, a McKinsey survey revealed that external communications were ranked second among the areas into which sustainability has been most integrated. However, given the complexity and ambiguity of the term “sustainable development,” which ranges from environmental sustainability to more social topics such as economic empowerment and education, it has been difficult for big business to find a way to reach their consumers’ attention in this respect. Unable to get their customers excited about the private sector’s role in these issues and seeing much more promising marketing subjects, a business’s efforts on sustainability tended to get buried into an extensive annual sustainability report, which didn’t herald much attention from the consumer.

However, as is often the case, an outside spark helped to generate interest and bring light on what some may have otherwise seen as a secondary issue. This spark was arguably the withdrawal of the world’s largest economy, the United States, from the 2015 Paris Agreement in June of this year. As multiple business leaders publicly condemned the decision and, in many cases, have chosen to ignore it, audiences worldwide were suddenly made aware of the severity with which a large portion of the corporate world viewed the environmental question. Sustainability has in fact become one of the prime long-term strategic concerns for many CEOs as they have realized it is a vital area of investment if they want to remain competitive.

Establishing departments that work on creating environmentally sustainable alternatives helps draw the brightest minds and keeps a business at the edge of innovation, as we can see in the case of Nike. Investing in better and greener infrastructure in emerging economies helps secure a more efficient supply chain, while opening up new markets through development. Creating high-quality, green products makes brands more attractive to millennials, who are expected to overtake baby boomers as the wealthiest consumer group within the next 10 years–already having done so in most Asian and African economies. With these realities in mind, many of America’s largest businesses have undertaken large financial commitments to develop along a sustainable path.

The US government’s decisions to revoke on a large number of its environmental commitments, the list of which you can find here, is therefore likely to lead towards business getting more involved in the public-policy debate around sustainability. Curious what this might look like? The theme of one of the largest annual sustainability gatherings of corporate leaders for the past twenty-five years— this year’s BSR conference in Huntington Beach, California— will be titled “How Business Leads.”

Businesses attempting to take a more public role may sound invasive at first, but it may in fact help get things moving at a faster pace. International organisations, which cannot carry the burden of international development by themselves, have been urging corporate leaders to do so for a number of years. “Corporate effort is critical”, was the plea of former Australian prime minister and current president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, Kevin Rudd at BSR16. The World Economic Forum has also been vocal in stressing that much of the potential of emerging economies remains “trapped” for business and the global economy as a whole, as long as the gap towards reaching the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is not closed.

If business does live up to the challenge and becomes a leading force in the worldwide sustainability effort, it will have to develop a more unified communications strategy. This means one that is based on activating its consumers to become more involved in the dialogue between civil society, the public sector and business.

This will be all the more important in what is increasingly an era of misinformation, where political and social movements are often initiated by popular sentiment rather than factual truth. It will have to be backed up by a committed long-term effort in terms of financial investment, product development and internal structural change. If successful, however, businesses may end up with a unique opportunity to shape the direction of sustainable development more than they could have imagined a decade ago.

If such a plan arises, its ideas may well be articulated first at BSR17, which is why we will be attending and listening carefully.

By Djembe Communications