How to shape your sustainability story


I’ve been working in sustainability marketing — helping companies communicate about what they’re doing on sustainability in order to drive brand preference and sales — for 15 years. I used to spend a lot of time trying to convince executives of the power of sustainability as a lever: to attract and retain employees, to drive consumer preference, to appeal to investors. Happily, I don’t spend as much time doing that anymore. Most executives seem to get it that sustainability is a “thing” now.

Instead, I spend a lot of time convincing them that they need to do things to be sustainable before we can talk about it.

The No. 1 request we get from prospective clients is “Help us tell our sustainability story,” which assumes that there actually already is a sustainability story to be told.

This request typically comes from people in corporate marketing or communications, which is good because they have the budgets for storytelling (the folks on the sustainability team typically don’t), and it’s great that they’re engaged on the topic (for years they weren’t).

What’s not good is they often don’t know anything about greenwashing and all the perils/implications for their brands if they’re accused of it.

Having a recycling program is not the same thing as having a sustainability story. And having been a responsible business for years is not the same thing as having an actual program to reduce impacts and create a sustainable future.

So, we spend a lot of time helping companies see that they need to follow a basic formula in order to tell their sustainability stories successfully. Here are the three major components:


This starts with measuring a company’s actual environmental impact, including environmental and social impacts in its supply chains. If you’ve done this, you know it’s hard. But your team simply can’t go out in the world and say your company is a leader on sustainability or position your organization as “Good” if you don’t actually know what you’re doing today that’s not good.

You also need to understand what your key audiences expect from you. This is more than a materiality study, although it’s good to do that exercise. This is about understanding deeper visceral reactions to your company’s brand and the expectations of customers, investors and prospective employees.

It’s imperative that your company’s commitments solve actual environmental problems and that its goals align with and even exceed the market’s expectations of your company and brands.

All of this analysis should end with actual impact reduction goals and an overarching environmental and/or social commitment your company can be known for. In other words, do all the right things to reduce greenhouse gas impacts.

That could mean committing to science-based targets and/or the 1.5 Degree Pledge, or it could mean planting your flag on a moonshot goal such as ending hunger; shifting an entire category from single-use to re-use; ending the use of certain pesticides or Red List chemicals in your company’s products; shifting an entire category away from fossil fuels — you get the idea. As you pick this moonshot goal, keep in mind that it needs to align with your brand and what your company is already known for, because, ultimately, your storytelling needs to align.


I’ve spent a lot of years advocating for the standard sustainability approach of “Get out there with your commitments! By going public it will hold you accountable, and by letting the world know what you’re going for you’ll attract partners you never could have found otherwise.”

I still believe that wholeheartedly. But I’ve seen a lot of companies sort of stop there. They announce goals and then they don’t do a lot to actually change their processes/systems/suppliers to make the goals happen.

So, yes, communicate about a moonshot goal, but wait to really hang your hat on it until your company has an actual roadmap in place for getting there and until it has begun taking action.


Suzanne Shelton

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