Partnerships critical to credibility of corporate sustainability initiatives

Given the overwhelming corporate support of Earth Day, more companies than ever are communicating how their operations and products are becoming environmentally sustainable.

Given the overwhelming corporate support of Earth Day, more companies than ever are communicating how their operations and products are becoming environmentally sustainable. To lend those communications some credibility, companies like Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola and, most recently, Procter & Gamble have formed partnerships with environmental NGOs.

“These partnerships are especially important today because if you look at current perceptions, there is a great deal of skepticism about the trustworthiness of business actions,” says Lisa Manley, group director of sustainability communications at Coca-Cola.

Coca-Cola has anchored its sustainability goals—including water and energy conservation—around a partnership with the World Wildlife Fund. Now in its third year, the partnership is promoted in part through PR and the web, says Manley. The company also targets investors through annual reports and executive speaking opportunities.

“I think engaging with NGOs in a collaborative way on the environment can lend an element of validity to the work being done by corporate America,” says Manley.

Her assertion is supported by the 2010 Edelman Trust Barometer, which reported NGOs are the most trusted institution in the western world, with 57% of US residents trusting them to do what is right.  

“Trust in NGOs is trending up, and I think we'll see more of these partnerships because of the growing importance of the environment,” says Michael Holland, EVP and group head of CSR and sustainability for Edelman.

Chris Chamberlin, managing partner of the sustainability practice for PainePR, agrees, but warns that companies need to be clear in their communication about the purpose of such partnerships. “I've been doing environmental affairs work for 15 years, and if you get it wrong—you over-claim or over-position—there's no tolerance for it,” says Chamberlin.

PainePR was very cognizant of the risks when it sought strategic partnerships to help client P&G support its “Future Friendly” campaign. Launched in late March, the campaign aims to educate consumers on how to use its existing products like Tide and Cascade in sustainable ways.

For the educational component, P&G partnered with National Geographic, which is supplying tips on saving household energy, water, and waste for the Future Friendly website. But the publication does not endorse any product.

“Their presence on our website implies support only of this idea of future friendly living—that any consumer can small changes to help the environment,“ says Glenn Williams, external relations manager for US market strategy and scale at P&G. “National Geographic has its own equity, and for their own credibility as well as ours, it has to remain independent from our products.”

For a more direct product endorsement, P&G had its Future Friendly products validated by NSF International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to public health and safety. The product certification was promoted with a press release on April 22.

“We're trying to avoid the phrase ‘green washing',” Williams says. “When NSF says our claims are correct—and a group like National Geographic says ‘Yes, consumers can take steps towards a friendly future'—that is the right way to support this initiative.”

Since 2004, Walmart has supported and communicated its sustainability initiative with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), most recently with a pledge to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

In an e-mail, David Tovar, senior director, media relations and digital communications at Wal-Mart, says ultimately the collaboration helps the company do what's right—not what it thinks is right. “Organizations like EDF have been critical to helping Walmart better understand sustainability issues,” he says.

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