“Marketing should never be involved in sustainability strategies until the very end.” I heard those words recently from a senior environmental manager at a sustainability conference in Chicago. Being at an NGO that collaborates with companies only when there's measurable business and environmental results, I understand this concern. Greenwashing benefits no one, so it's imperative for marketing and communications pros to embrace the principle of “act first and talk later.” Communications pros must also strive for transparency and continue to engage in a meaningful, two-way dialogue with external stakeholders.
But avoiding greenwashing and embracing transparency are just the beginning of the sustainability road for communicators. Relegating marketing and communications to external-facing sustainability activities is a big mistake, and misses a golden opportunity: the value of bringing the power and passion of environmental innovation to your internal stakeholders – your employees.
Environmental initiatives impact entire organizations, meaning every single corner of a company can create environmental and business value, regardless of occupation. A clear, consistent, and efficient communications function can be the foundation of this powerful idea when it's focused on two things:
Spreading proven environmental best practices from one part of the company to the rest. When companies attempt to bring a newly found energy and cost saving process from one facility to the rest, it's often lost in translation. Fortunately, the conveniences of social media platforms, such as Twitter, Delicious, Google Groups, Facebook, and even IM and intranets, offer ways for diverse parts of the organization to share and strategize around environmental improvements.
Creating a new corporate culture that embraces environmental innovation from the board room to the shop room floor. Communications must be intimately involved from the beginning to help make environmental aspirations a reality. There are countless examples of front-line employees who turned seemingly small ideas into significant value for their companies, saving money and creating measurable environmental benefits. These ideas didn't come from a corner office or the director of CSR, but from a previously untapped and unlimited resource – the company's own employees. Communications systems were in place that simultaneously empowered every employee to embrace innovation in their jobs, and then extracted and scaled their best ideas
Establishing this new level of internal best practice sharing and best practice creation isn't easy. But empowering internal stakeholders to directly contribute to your company's environmental strategy is an important first step. The benefit of harnessing the power and passion of environmental entrepreneurism in your employees is undeniable. It creates a competitive advantage from the bottom-up, drives innovation deep into the organization, and allows every employee to be part of the sustainability mission, rather than just be told about it.
Kyle Cahill is director of corporate engagement at Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit that links science, economics, law and innovative private-sector partnerships to address environmental problems.