Sustainable walk must match talk

Preaching green is all the rage in the PR industry these days, and frankly, it is time to re-examine the buzzword and have a serious discussion about what environmental stewardship really means and why it is important to business.

Preaching green is all the rage in the PR industry these days, and frankly, it is time to re-examine the buzzword and have a serious discussion about what environmental stewardship really means and why it is important to business.

We'd all like to believe that the environmental movement has come to the fore because businesses are understanding that we are not using our resources wisely. The truth, however, is that America has gone green because of a groundswell of support from consumers. This has triggered subsequent demand for environmental messaging, packaging, and marketing.

The upside is that this shows that businesses are responding to their customers. Change really is taking place, as is evident from the plethora of hybrid cars, solar panels, and LEED-certified buildings popping up. The risk, of course, is that companies overstretch their achievements or simply slap a coat of green paint on a widget and call it environmentally friendly.

Corporate leaders need to look at every aspect of their business and ask themselves whether they are employing environmentally sound processes beyond just the end product. Companies need to focus on incorporating sustainable efforts from an operational level up. If a can of hairspray is built from recycled products, but then emits environmentally toxic aerosol into the air, the product cannot and should not be marketed as green.

Having a more macro-level understanding of how the business affects the environment is a critical part of a company's reputation. It is not, however, the only part.

There must be three legs to the sustainability stool: social, economic, and now, environmental. Companies need to look at their contributions on all these levels in order to truly assess their effects on society. Execution and appropriate communication at all the levels is necessary for a holistic sustainable reputation. Neglecting any one part does the company a disservice and invites reputation risk.

For example, Wal-Mart has taken on a strong environmental campaign, using its clout to force green innovations up and down its supply chain. Its reputation, however, is still in question owing to perceptions of poor treatment of its employees, as well as the social impact of its stores on their communities.

A recent article in Harvard Business Review eloquently outlined how a company's reputation can be measured by how its communications match up to its actions over time. Consistent execution at all levels followed by communication is rewarded. Gaps in what a company does and what it says it does are perilous.

PR pros are in the powerful position of articulating their clients' positions, but they have an even greater responsibility to counsel their executives on walking the walk before talking the talk. Moreover, that can't be isolated to being green, doing pro-bono work, or achieving regulatory compliance. Reputation rests on all aspects of the business.

We in the PR industry also have an obligation to practice what we preach. We need to recognize that we have contributions to make in the way we do business; the way we interact with our suppliers, partners, and, clients; and the way in which we affect our environment. To do any less risks our own reputations.

As knowledge-based businesses, PR firms are less carbon-offensive, and being green as a PR firm is much less challenging than it is for a manufacturer or shipper. That is why every firm should be carbon-neutral and seek ways to be ahead of the curve environmentally.

Environmental awareness and sustainability campaigns are an opportunity for us to improve the world as we help our clients and also a reason to feel good about our work and our profession.

Michael Kempner is CEO of MWW Group.

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