Success in Sustainability Combines These 3 Ingredients

Commit. Collaborate. Communicate.

That seems to be the mantra these days when it comes to tackling the complexity of sustainability challenges. Whether the topic is carbon removal, renewable energy procurement, transforming supply chains or creating a circular economy, inevitably the road to success is paved with these three ingredients …

The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, organised by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and U.N. Environment, sets forth a set of broad targets, including eliminating problematic and unnecessary plastic packaging, increasing reusable packaging and making all plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable.

It’s a bold and audacious set of commitments, and the global brands included among the signatories — Coca-Cola, Danone, Diageo, Unilever, Mars, Nestlé, Philips, SC Johnson and others — aren’t likely to see this as a cavalier, check-the-box P.R. exercise. Indeed, these companies are all but screaming, “Judge us on what we do, not what we say we’ll do.”Success in Sustainability Combines These 3 Ingredients - cardboard

Most if not all of them are already on a path to deliver on such promises, but it will take a great deal more hard work to make good on them — maybe more work than some of these companies fully appreciate. It will require collaborating with their entire value chain — or is it now a value loop? — and communicating openly and authentically how well they’re doing in achieving their targets.

We’re seeing this three-legged stool — commit-collaborate-communicate — throughout the sustainability profession and the emerging clean economy.

We saw it in spades at our recent VERGE conference: cities pulling together to become “smart” and sustainable; big companies collaborating to electrify their fleets; companies partnering to scale up renewable energy purchases; companies looking externally for partners to help build new circular models for products and materials; companies working together to create new value propositions around removing carbon from the atmosphere.

All of these require new ecosystems of partners and collaborators, whether suppliers, customers, communities or others. And all require commitments and communications.

None of the Sustainable Development Goals can be achieved without these three ingredients. Or the Paris Agreement on climate change. Or pretty much any other global, sectoral or multisectoral goals or commitments.

It’s probably the last of the Cs — communicate — that will be most challenging for companies. In general, companies do not tell their stories well. That makes sense given the history of sustainable business.Success in Sustainability Combines These 3 Ingredients - business

Time was that being humble and modest about one’s environmental achievements and progress was seen as an asset, a means of minimising reputational risk from being seen as taking only partial measures to solve complex challenges. Better to do your thing, the thinking went, than to promote yourself and gain unwanted attention that could turn your good deeds into a liability. And maybe, if things worked well, activists or the media would “catch us being good.”

It was a dubious strategy then, and it’s an even worse one now. These days, transparency rules. You can’t get by saying, “Trust us. We’re working on it.”

But how to tell stories that are about progress, but not perfection? How do you communicate to customers and others, “We’re doing less bad than we used to”? After all, most of these initiatives — eliminating plastic waste, reducing the use of polluting energy sources and so on — are about reducing problems, not necessarily about creating new sources of value. Doing-less-bad stories are tough to tell.

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