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Creating sustainable communication processes, platforms, media and products

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“Sustainable Communications – towards an ecological footprint for communication departments” is one out of five key trends identified by the Communications Trend Radar 2021.

Few topics have been debated as emotionally as climate change over the past few years. The United Nations calls it the world’s greatest challenge. We believe that corporate communications departments will soon be expected to reduce their environmental impact – just as other organizational units have to prove their ecological sustainability. Find out why and how communicators should start thinking about their communication footprint.

Sustainability – a key driver for business performance

The high importance of sustainability for companies in all industries is indisputable. This is true for each aspect of sustainability: environmental, social, and economic issues. In particular, ecological sustainability – in the sense of the long-term, gentle use of natural resources – is expected to be an integral part of corporate strategies. Those companies without answers at hand run the risk of losing public legitimacy.

The growing relevance of sustainability is driven by various stakeholders simultaneously: Investors, who rate the company’s performance in environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG). Customers and clients, who want to buy and consume more sustainable products and services. Employees and applicants, who are also calling for more sustainability. NGOs and activists, who are increasingly challenging economic and social policies of corporations and criticize economic growth. Politics and governments, who have to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and put pressure on companies.

Sustainability has moved beyond compliance with laws and regulations and improving bottom-line performance to be a core driver of reputation and brand value, attract and retain top talent, and respond to consumer preferences.

Jim Meszaros, Executive Vice President, Weber Shandwick

From communicating about sustainability to acting sustainably

Sustainability Communications“ is an established practice in most corporations. It refers to sustainability as a core topic and content for communication campaigns, branding, stakeholder dialogues, and corporate reporting.

What the Communications Trend Radar 2021 identified as the NEW trend is what we call „Sustainable Communications“, meaning the sustainability of processes, platforms, media, and products of corporate communications as a strategic topic.

Difference between sustainability and sustainable communication
Difference between sustainability and sustainable communication

Why communicators should think about their environmental footprint

The ecological impact of the communication department’s activities usually remains unclear. This is surprising, as events, trade shows, print magazines, yet also websites and social media platforms consume lots of energy and produce waste and air pollution. What’s more: In some cases, corporate communications is not directly accountable for their emissions. E.g., the energy efficiency of the office infrastructure is decided by the real estate management. And the energy consumption of the digital infrastructure (website, intranet, web meetings, etc.) lies first and foremost in the hands of the IT department.

Nevertheless, acting sustainably in communication departments and trying to measure the communication footprint will have positive effects:

  1. Firstly, integrating sustainability into their own workflow allows communication departments to contribute to related corporate goals.
  2. Secondly, dealing with sustainability in their everyday work increases the awareness and expertise of communication practitioners. This helps them to communicate more authentically about “green” topics. The bottom line is that those who act sustainably themselves are better equipped to communicate and advise about corporate sustainability.

What such an environmental communication footprint will look like isn’t yet clear. What is clear, that it must reflect the complexity of communication processes, platforms, media, and products. Some pioneers in the communications industry are already certifying and positioning themselves as climate-friendly (e.g., Edelman). This puts the issue on the agenda of our profession. It is only a matter of time before communication leaders will be asked about their strategies and achievements in this field.

Three steps for communication departments to get started today

Even if concepts for defining and measuring communication footprints have yet to be developed, there are already three steps that communication departments can take today:

  1. Put your own sustainability to the test: Start documenting all the platforms, media, and products that you use: What sort of events do you organize? What reports and brochures do you publish? How much travel is required for meetings? Since sustainability plays a part in every decision, it makes sense to include this aspect in the planning of future activities.
  1. Develop a line of arguments on the sustainability of corporate communications activities as we assume that internal and external stakeholders will at some point want answers and proof. This needs to be prepared in advance – an investment in your credibility and risk prevention. Some situations will be tricky, when sustainability requirements and user expectations have to be weighed up against each other (e.g. explain why the staff magazine is discontinued, but a printed customer magazine still makes sense).
  1. Reduce where possible: What processes and activities of a communication department have the most negative impact on the climate? Which of them are most likely to become sustainable? This question can be applied to events, communication products like annual reports and digital formats such as websites, social media channels and intranets. The same could be done for the digital infrastructure (content management systems, video conferencing, collaboration software). All these technologies consume energy. Communication leaders should think early on about sustainability in these dimensions.