Value through Transparency
Sustainability commu-
nications is tricky, and many companies fail to get it right


The fourth step in the Resource Effectiveness Transformation process is called ‘Profile’, which deals with how to communicate a company’s sustainability efforts and performance to its customers and other stakeholders. Many companies struggle to decide how to communicate about sustainability. And this is understandable.

Even scientists find it hard to define what constitutes a sustainable product or company. Mainstream consumers (the ‘Conflicted’ and ‘Confused’ segments, see Demand) generally hardly know how electricity is generated, and even less about climate change, which often gets mixed up with other environmental problems, such as ozone layer depletion and air pollution. Furthermore, manufacturers have started to bombard these ‘sustainability-illiterate’ consumers with an abundance of eco labels and rather vague green claims, not seldom amounting to ‘greenwashing’: marketing practices aiming to paint a product or company as being more sustainable or ‘green’ than it really is.

Against this background, many consumers are suffering from 'green fatigue' and have become skeptical of green products and green marketing. At the same time, however, they do expect companies to be transparent about their impact, and are looking for help to live more sustainable lifestyles. Sustainability communications is tricky, and many companies fail to get it right. Smart companies can differentiate themselves through a carefully crafted sustainability communications strategy.

Four types of sustainability communications

There are four ways to communicate about sustainability, depending on whether the statements are verified by a third party, and whether the claims pertain to the organization as a whole, or to specific products.

1. Eco Certification
The first category of sustainability related communications is ‘eco certification’, whereby external parties certify that the organization complies with a certain standard. Read more

2. Eco Labeling
The second category is ‘eco labeling’: the use of environmental labels on a company’s products. Eco labeling also involves certification by external parties, but contrary to ISO certification, eco labels are used for active external communications through the packaging of physical products, and usually occur in a B2C setting rather than in B2B relationships. Read more

3. Corporate 'Greening'
The third way to communicate about sustainability is called Corporate ‘Greening’: PR and external communications about a company’s sustainability efforts. Companies choose different routes in this area. Some are very vocal about their intentions and achievements, while others prefer to keep a low profile, for fear of being challenged and accused of greenwashing. Read more

4. Sustainability Branding
The fourth and final category is ‘Sustainability Branding’: explicitly positioning products and services as more sustainable or ‘green’. Sustainability branding is usually supported by communication efforts in the other three categories, especially eco labeling. Choosing to highlight the environmental aspects of a product is a big decision. Read more