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Social and environmental issues determine a business’s viability - so you need to know how to navigate them

 

 

I’m starting with a bold statement that is absolutely verified by data. At this point, anyone who doesn’t understand that sustainability (meaning social and environmental impact) is already a part of the core business strategy of any good business and should, therefore, be part of any professional’s skillset, is a bit behind. And if you’re a communicator, getting these complex issues, from climate change to diversity and inclusion, wrong can be embarrassing, costly or even illegal. 
 
There are a few things to refresh your thinking on regularly, even if you’re a pro, and if you’re not yet familiar with sustainability and sustainability communications, this aims to provide a quick overview of what you need and why. 
 
Firstly, do you actually understand what sustainability is? Think it just means ‘environmental’ issues? Wrong. Think ESG and sustainability are the same? Wrong again. I’ll briefly unpack this below. 

 

Secondly, how is sustainability potentially part of your role as a communicator and/or leader? I’ll give you a quick insight into top trends and regulation that you need to know about, so you’re not potentially creating greenwash, purposewash or other related risks. 
 
The term sustainability is widely misunderstood:let’s pin down some fundamental definitions 

 

It’s hard to avoid the terms ESG and sustainability in business, in the media and in public concerns, but what are they, really? 
 
Sustainability focuses on the ability of the systems that underpin our societies to ‘meet present needs without compromising future generations' ability to meet theirs,’ to paraphrase the UN Brundtland definition that has held fast since 1987.1 In order to be sustainable, something needs to have a balanced, long-term environmental, social AND economic impact. If it’s not all three, it’s not sustainable - so… remember that sustainability is holistic. It’s about social, environmental and economic impact that enables a business to thrive. 
 
ESG - Environmental, Social, Governance - is an interrelated term. ESG is a framework to evaluate a company's operations and performance on environmental impact, social responsibility and governance practices. ESG criteria were initially used by investors and shareholders to understand the long-term viability of a business model.  

 

These days, it has become an increasingly important framework and knowledge to have at multiple levels of an organisation - from leadership to operations to communications. Sustainability reporting requirements are becoming increasingly stringent in places like the EU, through regulation like the Corporate Sustainability Responsibility Directive (CSRD).2 CSRD came into effect in January 2023 and requires any business with an EU presence to report on their environmental and social impacts.3 
 
This isn’tjust about the EU though. In Asia, consider that companies in Singapore, in particular, are leading in the region on adapting their approach and embracing ‘integrated reporting,’ which includes ESG alongside things like financial reporting. These Singapore-based companies are then ‘outperforming their global counterparts in numerous reporting measurements.’4 
 
Businesses truly do thrive when they operate sustainably and communicate it well 
 

If that sounds a bit fluffy, consider this, as just one of a large number of reputable studies in recent years saying basically the same thing. EY and Harvard Business School published a joint report that put it starkly: Purpose-driven companies are more financially successful.5In other words, companies that understand and embed sustainability in their business model, then communicate and report well on it do better economically. 
 

Businesses who embed sustainability in their business and communicate it well win loyalty from employees and customers who care about and make choices based on sustainability credentials.  
 
‘Environmental sustainability remains a top concern for Gen Zs and millennials, with 62% of  

Gen Zs and 59% of millennials reporting feeling anxious or worried about climate change…  

Both generations actively take measures to limit their environmental impact. They want governments to push businesses to take more climate action, and businesses to help consumers make more sustainable choices… 

 

Two in 10 Gen Zs and millennials… actively research the environmental practices of companies they purchase from and are willing to pay more for sustainable products.’6 
 

They also set themselves up to navigate continuing and increasing volatility in markets and global society better than companies led by people who think that profitability and sustainability should be led by different teams and exist in different galaxies. 

 
Not operating sustainably - or not communicating it well - creates real risk 
 
On the flip-side of ‘sustainable businesses do well,’ is the risk of not doing or communicating sustainability well.  
 
Let’s talk about ‘greenwashing.’ The term refers to exaggerated or false claims by a company who are stating that their products or services are environmentally friendly. This is becoming increasingly risky, and the majority of cases I’ve seen of communicators doing this are due to ignorance, rather than intention. Which hopefully reinforces that this is a key area to educate yourself, your teams, your clients and your own organisation about.  
 
Sustainability-related litigation and investigations into greenwashing are on the rise, and the boundaries of corporate responsibility and how companies communicate about their impact are being redefined by legislation.  
 
In 2023 the European Parliament adopted the Green Claims Directive, which came into force in 2024. European Commission research found that 53.3% of environmental claims on products and services are “vague, misleading or unfounded” and created widespread consumer confusion. In what is essentially the death-knell for unfounded environmental claims by 2026, any company making unverifiable claims, stating that their goods or services have a positive impact on the environment, can be fined.  
 
The aim is to ensure that businesses have the right tools to embrace and embed genuine sustainability practices and are not claiming something is good without explaining how. It is largely focused on products but is also expected to bring overall claims of sustainable services and impact into the spotlight and  is expected to have an impact across multiple sectors, including food and beverages, travel, technology, events - all of which include communications functions. 
 
Essentially, if you work for a company in the EU or have clients who work in the EU, it could be very expensive to miscalculate or miscommunicate  your environmental impact.  
 
So what should you do with this? 

 

Back in 2020, the PRCA published my book Communicating Social and Environmental Issues Effectivelyas part of its Practice Guide series. It’s a framework for understanding and communicating effectively around complex issues. I still draw on the research and framework I created in the trainings I do in my team and individual coaching practice and in the trainings I do for the PRCA.  
 
If anything you’ve just read was news to you, here are a few suggestions to upskill yourself and future-proof your own skillset and career (as well as make yourself more valuable to employers and clients, as a communicator and leader): 
1. Stay updated: Find a good news source that does regular email updates on sustainability trends, subscribe and keep up on developments that can inform your work.  
 

2. Build your skills: Do a training like the PRCA ESG training I lead, the DEI ones my PRCA colleagues offer or the upcoming future leaders training - PRimed for the Future. 
 
3. Gain greater rigour in sustainability communications and leadership: Find a longer specialised training, like one of these through the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL). I lead a course called Communicating for Influence and Impact and it is a rigorous and practical two-month experience from which you’llemerge having written your own Personal Impact Plan. 
 
Sustainability will never cease to be less complex and, ifanything is only becoming more complex in our increasingly volatile world. If it’s not already, it will likely be landing on your desk or in a future role - and if it hasn’t already, it probably should have. Prepare yourself now and be ready to navigate decisions and communications with greater skill. 

 

 

About the author:  

Betsy Reed is a leadership and sustainability advisor, trainer, author and speaker. She has spent the entirety of her career focused on social and environmental issues.   

Over the course of the past 20 years, Betsy has worked on five continents and established an impactful career focused on communications, public affairs, campaigning and behaviour change with governments, NGOs, academic institutions and businesses. For the past nine years,  she has worked as an independent advisor and mentor to leaders and leadership teams on issues ranging from ESG to diversity and inclusion, wellbeing to purpose-driven culture.  

Past roles include leading Nestle UK’s sustainability public affairs programme, serving as Head of Campaigns for Zero Waste Scotland, working as Director of leading international communications agency Grayling's sustainability unit and serving as the first Director of Scotland's national fair trade body. Betsy was invited to write the book 'Communicating Social and Environmental Issues Effectively,' published in summer 2020 by the UK PR and Communications Association (PRCA) and Emerald Publishing. It has been called ‘the definitive guide to planning and delivering great communications on complex social and environmental issues.’   

 Originally from the US, Betsy is also British and is currently working on obtaining Spanish nationality, as a long-time resident of Spain. She is currently a Professor of Leadership at a university in Barcelona and is Head Tutor for the Cambridge University Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) popular executive education course ‘Communicating for Influence and Impact.’   

She also produces a podcast called ‘The Discomfort Practice,’ teaches mindfulness to leaders and integrates all of her areas of expertise to create and deliver trainings that are holistic, well-structured, interactive and practical.