Communicating corporate sustainability without greenwashing: a 10-point checklist

Sustainability sits at the core of your business. Like more and more organisations, you are trying to do the right thing for people and planet – which is a huge positive for us all.

A protest by Extinction Rebellion France and ANV-COP21 against the Common Good Summit in May 2021 that featured the CEOs of ExxonMobil Europe and AXA France, among others (Photo by Alain Pitton/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Communicating clearly and authentically about sustainability doesn’t always come easy. Obviously, it can mean that the stakes are higher and you need to avoid making misleading claims or giving the impression that you’re more sustainable than you are – intended or not.

But don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Here are our guidelines to avoid pitfalls when it comes to telling your impact story.

  • Be authentic and transparent – honesty is the best policy.
  • Tell the full story, talk about your successes and challenges equally, including how you intend to improve areas you’re still working on.
  • Set ambitious yet achievable milestones in the short, mid, and long term (not just for 2050!), communicate your roadmaps to reach them and hold yourself accountable to them on a regular basis.
  • Sustainability is a journey. Be open about where you’ve come from, what you are doing, and where you’re going.
  • Centre the voices of people who are on the frontline of your sustainability work in your storytelling, particularly those from marginalised groups across your full value chain.
  • Sustainability should influence all parts of your company, so educate everybody across the organisation about your sustainability strategy and efforts, and encourage them to think about how they can contribute – from your financial department to your product team, from board members to shareholders. Taking them on this journey with you will change the way they look at the topic and perceive the valuable part that sustainability has for your company.

Example 1: Did your finance team choose the right bank to support your sustainability goals, or the most ethical pension funds?

Example 2: Did the product team think of the best possible packaging design and materials? You see what we are aiming at here...

Example 3: Make sure that your communications and marketing teams 100 per cent understand what they are talking about to avoid any misleading claims that ‘look good’ on social media but can become a huge pitfall for your brand image if they get called out for being misleading – AKA greenwashing.

  • Be original and thoughtful to stand out in your market. Do your research, and don’t just go for the ‘easy option’ (eg: plant a tree for every purchase) – this can be a valuable contribution, but there are many potentially more impactful alternatives.
  • If you face criticism, don’t ignore it – engage with your audiences. You may learn something or come to realise a new perspective you’d missed.
  • Measure all of your impact and back your claims with evidence.
  • Don’t market your action as the silver bullet; take the holistic approach.

And remember: there isn’t a finish line. This is a journey. Take your customers, employees, and shareholders on it with you – and keep on rocking for a clean world.

Ed Fletcher is co-managing director of Shape History. Nikki Stones is vice-president, marketing, at CleanHub.

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