I often get questions during talks and workshops about how businesses can communicate authentically or how consumers can tell which brands are greenwashing.
I connected with Jessica Reid, author of Planet Now: Effective Strategies for Communicating about the Environment, and the blog Planet Now on effective environmental communication to get her thoughts.
How should companies approach climate change communication first, without alienating customers, investors, and community, and second, coming across as authentic?
Jessica Reid: When it comes to not alienating customers, it's important to consider your values and your target audience. What is your customer like, and where are they? What's their demographic information, what's their psychographic information? Most companies are reaching a specific niche of people. Even if you are alienating some customers, it's crucial to think about the benefit of promoting sustainability—you might be able to reach more people who share your values by focusing on sustainability or making your company the first choice for people who care about it buying sustainably. It's essential to make sure that you're clear on what the company values are, even if some people disagree with that.
In terms of coming across as authentic and not greenwashing, one important strategy is to look out for the specific types of greenwashing. For example, there's the sin of no proof and the hidden trade-off. When leaders understand types of greenwashing, it would be easier to avoid it. Make sure that you have measurable goals and metrics so that you can share progress—setting a goal without the intent to reach it or setting a goal and hiding that you have not reached it would be greenwashing. You could be transparent about barriers and what you're doing to overcome them.
It's also good to be clear about what exactly you're measuring in terms of your environmental impact, for instance, Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions. Are businesses just measuring their direct specific carbon emissions? Are they considering what suppliers are doing? Are they taking into account employee commutes? In being transparent, it's critical to talk about what exactly is being measured. AltCap: Could you explain a little bit more about the sins of greenwashing? Jessica: There are actually several sins of greenwashing. One of them would be the sin of no proof. If a company says that they're doing something environmentally sustainable, but they're not able to show what they're actually doing, that would be greenwashing. The sin of hidden trade-off would be perhaps they're making a more sustainable change, but there are other impacts. For example, a company could be reducing their plastic consumption, but the new material actually emits more carbon. So it's critical to say, if you're making a change, what are the other effects?
AltCap: You talk about hope-based marketing being more effective than fear-based marketing. Do you have any examples of successful hope-based marketing? Jessica: In terms of hope- and fear-based marketing, it's important to find the right balance of hope and fear. It really depends on the audience and what the ask is for them because it's critical to help people understand that climate change is not going to solve itself. And the way we solve it is by taking action. So, there's hope, and we can do something about it. If you make people feel fearful, they'll be hopeless of a better future. If they think that there is no way the future could be better, then they'd continue on the path that they're on. I wanted to draw out a couple of examples of hope-based marketing. Patagonia had a hope-based marketing campaign using a reversible poem to raise awareness of the climate crisis. If you read it one way, it says that the future is hopeless. If you read it the other way, it shows hope, and we can do something about it. It calls attention that people can take action, such as buying a sustainable, long-lasting jacket, and bring people together to talk about how our actions can make the world better rather than worse.
Another example is a green new careers initiative from the sunrise movement. They created a quiz where people can talk about their strengths and figure out the best way to have a career supporting the climate movement. So you could have a career where you're helping to make our world a better place.
Which areas should companies focus on in terms of climate change?
I'd encourage companies to do a lifecycle analysis to understand the most important areas to reduce their environmental impacts.
Going back to Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions. Maybe the business uses a lot of energy; maybe it's their suppliers or products. Perhaps they find that they produce a lot of waste and it's not being disposed of properly; maybe they could recycle more.
It really depends on the specific company, but it's important to do research and not just assume the problem and put all their energy into solving the suspected problem.
What is the danger of relying too much on selling hope?
The concern comes if the amount of hope in the communication makes people complacent. If they think that our world is already trending in a direction where we're solving climate change and mitigating all of these anticipated disasters, they'd assume that there's no need to get involved, and someone else will take care of it. That's why you have to find that right mix.
I don't think we should inject too much fear into communicating about climate change. It has its place depending on the audience, mainly if it's an audience that isn't very engaged in the issue, perhaps injecting fear to show them why they need to become engaged in the problem.
But eco-anxiety is a phenomenon among a lot of people, especially Gen Z. You don't want to make people more anxious about climate change, but instead, focus on the action steps that people can take and the action steps that governments and businesses should take and how individuals should encourage or pressure these larger institutions to make these changes. AltCap: So is it action-based marketing? Jessica: Yes, I love that term. That's a great insight because hope goes hand in hand with action, and hope must be followed by action. AltCap: Should there be a different approach in communicating to various stakeholders? Jessica: I believe it's important to keep an overall key message for all stakeholders and that the business is grounded in its values, but they can still use different strategies to help various groups understand and support these initiatives. Perhaps if you're talking with investors, it's important to talk about how sustainability initiatives can save the company money since they're probably most concerned with its bottom line. But if you're talking with customers, and you talk about how making the product sustainable helps them live more sustainable lives, you're appealing to what will probably resonate with them the most. Either way, you're still talking about sustainability as a core value, something that you're taking action toward. You can have the same overall carbon emissions reductions goals, but you can talk about different aspects of those goals and other benefits with different audiences. AltCap: How might we communicate with someone who does not believe in the existence or extent of climate change?
Climate Change Polarization
Jessica: It's crucial to listen to their perspective and understand where they're coming from, and not make automatic judgments about them. Some people could reasonably think climate change is not happening depending on the media they consume and the information they have access to.
I get that there is a lot of disinformation on social media or in the news, so there are people who don't understand that climate change is happening. So, listen to them, see what their concerns are, what sources they are using, and then figure out how you can connect to the things they care about and make them more open to changing their perspective. The first step is not about making them feel stupid or guilty for thinking what they think. AltCap: Have you been in a conversation where the other person has made you think again? Jessica: It's totally OK to say you don't know and to be humble and accept, "that's a good point". It's OK to research the topic together because most of us are not climate scientists or experts. We can't know everything. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't be talking about climate change because it's an urgent problem. We should use what we know and continue to learn more to help other people understand. I love the term waves of change because there will be an exponential impact the more people understand climate change and talk about it. AltCap: How might we better present our perspective? Jessica: There are several ways to connect with people based on shared values. It's helpful if you can get to know them, whether it's an individual you're talking to or to a specific audience, but figuring out what exactly it is that they care about.
Connect on Shared Values
I can just go through a few examples of that. If they care about the economy or fiscal responsibility, you could talk about how taking climate action saves money over time how expensive and devastating climate disasters like hurricanes are. You could help people see that it is financially worth it over time to help the environment. In line with the economy, you could talk about the creation of new green jobs.
Another example would be justice. You could talk about environmental justice and environmental racism that we have, and how by protecting the climate, you can help reduce some of these and justices.
You can connect on religion. Most world religions believe that it's important to help other people. You could help others understand that the people causing the most emissions will not be the ones facing the worst effects of climate change. So, by supporting climate action, you are actually helping others.
Another strategy is to talk about how natural disasters could affect a community. Climate change could impact melting snow, and the community could lose money because people can't go skiing. So, connecting the impact of climate change to specific things within the community and the solutions that the community can take may help others see how climate change directly affects them.
I know you've done some work with environmental organizations. What have you learned?
I would say it has been very inspiring. Seeing so many people who care about protecting the environment, especially being involved at UNC-Chapel Hill and knowing this is one small area of the world with so many people passionate about protecting the environment.
That gives me hope because I see these people dedicated to helping our planet be a safer and more just place. So that's really been the most important thing that I've learned, and it's been inspiring and motivating to continue to do more. Because if no one else was doing anything, it really might feel pointless to be able to be trying to solve climate change.
But when you see how many people care, it shows opportunities for collaboration and real change.
Is there anything else that you'd like to share?
I'd encourage the audience to have conversations with people in their lives, possibly climate deniers, but possibly even more impactfully would be to talk with people who believe in climate change but don't know what they can do about it. So, open their minds to how they could start making changes or write letters to politicians. My blog has a few specific strategies that people can take, which people can also read more about.