Communication: sustainability’s missing link

By Wright Communications

The latest Colmar Brunton 2016 'Better Futures' report shows New Zealand consumers live up to this country's "100% Pure" slogan, caring deeply about both environmental and social issues.

The survey found nine out of 10 Kiwis have either a medium or high commitment to sustainability. Many Kiwis are prepared to back up their convictions by voting with their wallets, with around seven out of 10 consumers willing to pay more for sustainable, organic or ethically sourced products. But when it comes to the checkout line, there is a big problem: they struggle to pick out the sustainable brands.

Seven out of 10 Kiwi consumers cannot name any organisation as a leader in sustainability, either locally or globally. Almost half (49%) cannot even name one sustainable company. Needless to say, your company's sustainability efforts are not going to bring in new business if consumers do not notice them.

It gets worse: three-quarters of consumers say the way businesses talk about their social and environmental commitments is confusing and hard to understand. This is a slight improvement from the 2015 survey, but it must make frustrating reading for businesses that try to do the right thing by being sustainable, only to fall at the final hurdle. What happened to the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid)?

For the first time ever, in the seventh year of this longitudinal study, the Better Futures survey included questions about the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. It found that 77% of New Zealanders had never heard of these goals, and 92% were not aware New Zealand had signed up to them.

When informed as to what these goals are, New Zealanders agree with them: between 60% and 80% rated each of the 17 individual goals as important. When those people were asked to name the single most important goal the top six in order of priority were: no poverty, good health and well-being, quality education, sustainable cities and communities, clean water and sanitation, and zero hunger.

However, only 3% of Kiwis say New Zealand is a world leader in an area of sustainability they deem to be important. More generally, Better Futures revealed 83% of New Zealanders worry about the future and whether we're doing enough to keep New Zealand a safe and healthy place to live. The top concerns were violence in society (71%), the increasing cost of housing (67%) and protecting Kiwi children (66%).

While the top concerns are mainly social issues, environmental issues are gaining prominence. Five out of the eight fastest-rising concerns between 2011 and 2016 were environmental, including the impact of climate change on New Zealand (+16%), unsustainable use of natural resources (+14%) and protection of conservation land and waters (+12%).

These environmental issues are where companies should focus their energy, the findings from the Better Futures survey suggest. The top five businesses New Zealanders view as sustainable, such as ecostore, Z and Meridian have positioned themselves as sustainable leaders in brand communications.

What these companies have is a clear, easy to understand message around sustainability. Sadly, they are in the minority. The research tells us that sustainability goals are very important to Kiwis but regardless of what businesses and the public sector are doing in this area, the messages are not getting through to the public.

Are businesses and government organisations putting enough emphasis on telling these stories that the public want to hear? Do they have a plan to communicate these stories effectively?

The good news is that the poor communication overall is an opportunity for companies who get it right, particularly those in industries such as energy, where 75% of Kiwis say their buying is influenced by sustainability. And close behind energy are food and beverage production (73%) and food retailers (71%) with banks, insurance companies and cosmetics and personal care products the fastest risers when it comes to the influence of sustainability on consumer choice.

With that in mind, businesses need to ask themselves whether they are including sustainability in their briefs to their advertising and PR agencies and conversely, are their agencies encouraging them to add sustainability messages to their core brand storytelling.

When you invest in your sustainability programme, don't forget to ensure your communication around sustainability is adequately resourced, with people who understand the subject delivering the message. In many cases the investment in communications alone will deliver an ROI (consumer engagement, loyalty, sales etc), without the need to add more sustainability initiatives.

Being sustainable may help save the planet, but unless you communicate it effectively it won't save your business.

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