If you’re reading this blog, you no doubt know that sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) is big right now — at this point it’s safe to say it’s a business imperative. A recent report from the Carroll School of Management Center for Corporate Citizenship at Boston College disclosed that nearly 100% of companies have a corporate citizenship budget, up an impressive 20% since 2010.

Budget versus Benefits

It’s one thing to spend a lot of money on CSR, and another to see significant results, such as reduced environmental impact, improved reputation, engaged employees and reduced costs. Without a strategic implementation and communications plan around CSR programs, your company is not going to see the benefits.

That was my takeaway from an event I attended recently called “Making Sustainability Stick: Creating, Implementing and Communicating CSR Strategies that Work,” sponsored by the Puget Sound chapter of the Public Relations Society of North America.

As the marketing communications manager at Paladino, I’m always interested in learning more about how communications and storytelling can support and enhance a sustainability or green building program.

The panelists—Josh Chaitin, Senior VP of Business + Social Purpose at Edelman and Kevin Wilhelm, CEO of Sustainable Business Consulting — discussed Wilhelm’s new book, Making Sustainability Stick, and the role of effective communications in creating effective, lasting sustainability engagements.

Purpose Has a Marketing Problem

Chaitin stated that Edelman’s research has revealed one clear theme: CSR, or “purpose,” as Edelman labels it, has a marketing problem. While 92% of consumers say they want to do business with companies that share their values, only 28% understand what companies mean when they talk about sustainability, green or corporate social responsibility.

Furthermore, only 14% of those surveyed said they had faith in business and believe brands are doing a good enough job engaging consumers around their CSR programs. It’s not that they don’t believe the businesses are doing anything – they just don’t think companies are telling their stories to customers effectively.

With social media enabling one-to-one interactions with companies like never before, consumers are expecting — even demanding — that companies engage with them on value-based issues. In our information-overloaded world today, it’s critical for companies to employ effective communication tools to break through the clutter.

Chaitin shared a positive example: a campaign from Chipotle, the fast-casual Mexican chain. Chipotle commissioned a video to communicate the importance of sustainable food systems. The goal was to connect the company’s values with younger, digital savvy customers.

Moving from Random Acts of Green to Holistic Strategy

According to Wilhelm, too many organizations employ a “ready, fire, aim” approach to sustainability—taking an ad-hoc approach to their CSR program and cobbling random initiatives together implemented in siloes. One client told him,, “We’ve been at this for seven years, and we really need to figure out what we’re trying to do!”

He also mentioned a company that had spent lots of money on consultants over several years to help publish an annual CSR report. When the company finally started to engage its customers, investors and other stakeholders, it learned that no one even knew a report existed!

According to Wilhelm, the company missed a crucial first step: defining the “why” and what sustainability means to your company. It’s critical to define your “North Star” — the reasons why you are implementing a CSR program – to build consensus among the stakeholders in your organization, including investors, accounting, sales, legal and other employees.

The Role of Communicators

We find this to be true in our work on green buildings as well — the most successful projects include efforts to build consensus and align the entire project team around a common set of goals. That’s what the integrated design process and eco-charrettes are all about. But companies aren’t buildings, and the change effort to integrate sustainability throughout a company’s DNA is a much more complex and nuanced effort.

That’s where communications professionals can play a significant role – we can be the “translator” from the factory floor to the CFO, helping to align silos and ensure messaging is consistently communicated to all audiences, both internal and external.

This will require communications professionals to slow down a bit (I know that’s a tall order!) and become better educated about different functional areas within an organization, so we can speak the same language.

By helping our companies tell their stories in an authentic way that engages all stakeholders, communications professionals can help make the difference between just spending budgets and actually reaping the benefits of corporate social responsibility programs.

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