You may have noticed the FT’s Responsible Business special report that came out earlier this month and you may also have noticed there’s a lot of chat in the industry about sustainability – you seem to see a stream of tweets like this one nowadays.
The thing is sustainability’s difficult to communicate. It’s about making very detailed promises to stakeholders and sticking to them. Stakeholders know why you must be sustainable, they know what sustainability is and they know how you should be sustainable. So there is very little that can be done apart from report back line by line like a truant child on the promises that have already been made.
So, how come we’ve been drawn into merely reporting and not capitalising on sustainability?
First off it is complicated in the extreme. The law of unintended consequences was invented particularly with sustainability programmes in mind. The competencies needed to ‘be sustainable’ require every bit of sinew in the body corporate. It requires out-right visionary thinking, extreme attention to detail for auditing and reporting combined with excellent, fluent communications.
Secondly, stakeholders want change NOW (not unreasonably – in fact in a lot of cases, quite rightly). No matter how complicated your supply chain, nor how ingrained the habits for your customer the work has to be completed to their time scale.
And finally there is a massive disconnect between corporates and their consumers.
I don’t see this as a consumer problem, I see it as an untapped opportunity for corporates – no one’s quite cracked it yet. Great brands make promises that are at most three words long, global corporates make promises about sustainability that run into hundreds of pages.
I am over simplifying, but as a communicator it sometimes feels you are caught between a rock and a hard place. You feel that sustainably is about making long-term promises, and the brands these promises affect are about delivering on promises.
M&S’s Plan A I feel was a missed opportunity to capitalise on this values/action gap. Plan A promotions made the promise but every other consumer touchpoint was either apologising for not delivering YET, or slowly moving on to business as usual.
I don’t want to single M&S out, because my heart warmed a couple of degrees when I first heard of the initiative. It seemed like someone had cracked it. It was a prime opportunity to develop a customer service proposition akin to John Lewis’ “Never Knowingly Undersold”. Can’t they phase out old ranges and bring in new Plan A ranges to great fanfare? Or phase out old-fashioned packaging and promote the use of new Plan A packaging in a way that consumers can get excited about them?
It all seems so incremental that no one notices or cares until something goes wrong. Which plays into the hands of the skeptics – WHICH IS NOT THE AIM AT ALL. Sustainability is not about being humble, quiet, ploding, it’s about succeeding in business in the 21st century and beyond.