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Credibility in ESG means showing your work

Don Hoyt Gorman

Large companies face a profound challenge with their commitments to social and environmental change. We’re all familiar with greenwashing and empty promises: storytelling without substance. But companies that are genuinely doing the work are also struggling: they’ve got the substance but they don’t know how to tell the stories.

We all need more honest insight into what is being done. Both the wins and the failures are learning moments, and if any campaign on Earth needs honesty, it’s this global effort to make a better world. 

A clear sustainability content strategy is good business

In the landscape of B2B marketing, there is an abundance of boldly designed, beautifully wordsmithed sustainability reports. They convey companies’ commitments but rarely the real, challenging work that goes into meeting these ambitious targets. 

Sustainability content gives customers something to care about, so it needs to be showcased. To give these campaigns substance, they should be backed up with a strategy that combines business drivers, sustainability goals and marketing prowess. 

While B2C companies have a longer history of strategy-based storytelling, like Lacoste’s Save Our Species polos, some B2B companies are getting this mix right too. Dassault Systèmes has a foundation dedicated to sustainability that conveys its actions through storytelling. A1 Group, a leading provider of digital services and communications solutions, ran a campaign to provide food for bees on World Bee Day 2018. And Vestas partnered with the Mercedes-EQ Formula E Team to tell the story of its sustainability ambitions.  

When our client, Dematic, sought to develop its first sustainability report, we built a new process that used its rigorous internal ESG reporting function. With that as the base, we drew on the expertise of Dematic’s business leaders to tell the stories behind the numbers. The result was a report that told the story of Dematic’s sustainability pledges honestly and humanely.

Celebrate failure as much as success 

Everybody — customers, clients, shareholders, analysts, governments — wants to see and understand how companies will meet their sustainability pledges. It’s wonderful for a business to establish a blockchain initiative that tracks a truck fleet’s hydrogen-powered miles – but it doesn’t mean much to the outside world if that initiative doesn’t convey its impact and share learnings. 

Crucially, failures matter too. We know publicly traded companies’ marketing and reporting requirements can often preclude content that spotlights missteps. But learning from mistakes is hugely valuable for the sustainable future we are trying to build. 

Let’s see stories explaining why an initiative that promised to deliver positive change fell flat. That kind of honesty might seem idealistic. And it certainly would look like that from within a company lacking the skills to spotlight its sustainability initiatives with the aspiration to inform, inspire, collaborate and motivate. 

But these global pledges — around emissions, inclusivity, and more — are promises to learn from past failures. We recommend that sustainability marketing teams embrace that ethos along with celebrating their wins.  

Hard work must happen behind the scenes to meet these ambitions, and it will not all be story-led. But, right now, there’s too much hand-waving at big promises and insufficient illumination of what companies are doing. Behind all hard work, there is always a story to tell.

Want to be sustainable? Showcase your work. Your future success demands it.

A version of this article previously appeared on Net Zero Professional in April 2023.