On Tuesday October 4th Havas launched our Sustainability network, Genus, in Ireland. We were delighted to welcome 90 leaders from across the public and private sector and would once again like to thank the Minister of the Environment, Climate Change and Communications, Eamon Ryan, for his inspiring opening address.
The discussion was hosted by H/Advisor Cicero’s Susan Keogh, and we were fortunate to be joined by Mike Barry, previously Sustainability Director for Marks and Spencer, and a guest panel consisting of Aisling Curtis, Head of Sustainability at Microsoft Ireland, Shane Doyle, Senior Vice President of Alexion Operations, AstraZeneca, and Net Zero Lead at Havas, Spiro Comitis.
The theme of the event was ‘Why businesses need to lead the sustainability agenda to impact change’ and here are some of the reflections from this engaging evening.
Sustainability; what’s the story?
‘What’s the story’ is a well-known Dublin phrase, meaning what’s going on, or what’s up? In the Minister’s opening address he made a thought provoking linked between this phrase and the topic of the evening, sustainability. His point was thus: despite the fact that we’ve known about ecological disruption for 50 years, and climate change for 30 years plus, it feels true to say that it is only very recently that the issue has been taken seriously. Why? Because we’ve been getting the story of sustainability wrong, and if not the story itself wrong, at least how we’ve been telling it.
By its nature sustainability, can be, and is complicated. That said, most topics can become daunting and off-putting if they are discussed purely through the lens of statistics and facts. It is human nature. Yet too often the narrative around sustainability has become too-technical, overly focused on doom and gloom and lacking connection with people’s daily lives. The Minister was effectively saying that yes, facts are important and statistics can help paint a picture, but if we want to make an impact in the consciousness of people, it comes back to hearts and minds. Helping people positively engage with a topic like sustainability means making it meaningful for them, in terms – and in stories – that are relevant to them, their families and their communities.
We’ve been getting the story of sustainability wrong, and if not the story, how we’ve been telling it.
And we can take lessons from big brand marketeers. When introducing a new vehicle, a car manufacturer knows that focussing on engine output, tire size or maximum towing weight, is not the most effective way of creating interest amongst consumers. Instead they focus on the more evocative or emotive elements, like how the car will make you feel, how it will keep your family safe, or how it will improve your daily commute. Unfortunately we have failed to make that same connection with people when talking about sustainability.
To increase that engagement and make the topic a safe place where people can discuss and debate the important decisions that are required now to create a better future for everyone, we need to change how we’re telling the story. This is as true for citizens as it is for employees.
Pointers for business
Another message we heard frequently at the event – and something we know to be true from discussions with our own clients – is that people are challenged by knowing where to start. This is exacerbated by the equally concerning time we live, one of immense geopolitical uncertainty, a cost-of-living crisis and recessionary pressures being spoken of daily. It is no surprise that businesses want to be certain before leaping to action. When it comes to taking the first step, a guiding principle is that it must link back to the overall business’ strategy. So considering what will make the biggest impact on your strategy from a stakeholder perspective e.g. shareholders, customers, employees, communities, and the planet.
When it came to the panel discussion the importance leadership was recurring theme. The panel agreed that if sustainability is to be a priority for an organisation, it must have adequate senior sponsorship, and form part of the overarching business strategy. Being able to link sustainability focussed initiatives and business decisions to the business strategy enables employees to better engage with strategy and sustainability. It helps people see the link between daily actions and delivery and the bigger picture, and it avoids sustainability becoming an abstract concept or something that isn’t really embedded in the organisation. This clarity and linking to the “why” can also shift organisational perception from seeing spend on sustainability programmes as a cost, to being seen as an investment.
Tapping into the passion and creativity of your employee pool can act as an accelerated to putting sustainability at the heart an organisation. More and more employees are now looking to work for purpose-led organisations. Not every organisation is aiming – nor has the ability – to be a Patagonia. However, there is consistent evidence that employees’ productivity and job satisfaction levels are much higher when they can connect the work they do, with a topic that is meaningful for them and for their organisation. Sustainability is one such topic and organisations are seeing the benefit of greater connection between them and their employees as a result of initiatives in this area.
As a global firm with a strong heritage marketing and communication, a common concern amongst many Havas’ clients relates to greenwashing. It was therefore not surprising to hear this concern raised at the event, both by panellists and attendees. To be clear, when we talk about greenwashing, we’re referring to the misrepresentation of a product or a brand’s environmental attributes, typically as a means to sell more goods or services.
When advising our clients we tend to be quite pragmatic, and it centres around linking any customer communications or marketing to an overarching sustainability ambition or strategy, and accurately and transparently representing where the company is on that journey. A key message we communicate is that the representation doesn’t have to be perfect, as these journeys are typically not linear, but it should be grounded in reality. Where we would caution against is putting green credentials front and centre without fully considering how it links to the overall strategy, or indeed where it is a misrepresentation.
At Havas our purpose is meaningful brands. We see a meaningful brand being a purposeful brand. Given the immediate climate crisis we feel there is no better purpose than focusing our collective capabilities and expertise on the greatest challenge of our lifetime. We are a collective of experts, with a common objective of helping companies implement joined up, systemic sustainability.
The starting point and challenges will be different for every organisation. This will range from sustainability strategy and business transformation to employee engagement, customer insights to brand and stakeholder communications. Genus is a catalyst and partner for the accelerated transformation that is needed, wherever you are on that journey.
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