ow should we talk about sustainability? There has been great progress and strides made in sustainable development over recent years in the West Michigan community. Businesses, organizations, enterprises, academic institutions, and municipalities alike across the public, private, and academic sectors have all received sustainability recognition for their individual and collective impact efforts. Sustainability has now reached a tipping point where it is being integrated and embedded in the mission, vision, and cultures of many organizations. Birgit Klohs, President of the Right Place Inc., the key economic development agency in West Michigan, now acknowledges that “sustainability has become the DNA of West Michigan!”
With all the progress and continuous improvement being made in applying sustainability best practices, one of the greatest challenges with sustainability remains being able to generate successful dialogue and create greater awareness in the marketplace. What are some of the key thoughts to improve overall communications when discussing sustainability?
First of all, what does sustainability really mean? Sustainability is a broad term and may mean something different one to another. However, there are several important generational roots to consider regarding sustainability. African elders have spoken about sustainability as being “enough for all forever.” Native Americans have defined sustainability as “we do not inherit the earth from our fathers, we borrow it from our children.” The Brundtland Commission in 1989 further defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” And in the marketplace today, sustainable development can be seen as a collection of tools, processes, and best practices that allow you to make a better decision today as well as tomorrow, while creating positive social, environmental, and economic impact. Hence, the establishment of the “triple bottom line” concept for sustainability including social, environmental, and economic performance. For some, when talking about sustainability, the most pressing issues involve the natural environment including water, land, air, biodiversity, and resiliency. To others, focus on social issues such as poverty, education, healthcare, and inclusion and diversity are most pressing. And for businesses, there must be a positive economic performance and impact for sustainability initiatives. So the first takeaway is that sustainability is a broad term that should encompass social, environmental, and economic performance impact while addressing heritage, culture, values and a sense of place.
Secondly, who is the audience when talking about sustainability? For businesses and organizations, those audiences include C-suite management, customers, suppliers, supply chain partners, and stakeholders. For all organizations and enterprises there are employees that need to be aware of and empowered to embrace sustainability best practices, both in a corporate setting as well as an individual lifestyle. For academic institutions, the most important voice is that of students or the “millennials.” And then there is also the growing number of “baby boomers” who are entering retirement every day. Each of these demographic groups has its own perspectives, thoughts, ideas, and direct interests regarding sustainable development. Each of these clusters also has marketplace terminology and acronyms that must be considered. So the second takeaway is, all sectors have an interest in sustainability but one must first learn how to successfully reach individual groups and their specific issues, concerns, and opportunities. A Covey principle works well here. “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
Third, what types of effective communications can be used to create sustainability awareness and stimulate conversation and dialogue? Sustainability blogs are a good way to discuss sustainability best practices. These written communications are concise and stay on point, unlike journal and periodical articles which are longer and usually more technical in nature. For others, reading an annual sustainability report or visiting a company website is the best way to learn and gather sustainability information. And of course, there are the growing outlets of social media including Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, LinkedIn, and others.
Finally, there are a growing number of new communication platforms on sustainable development being developed. First is the creation of 3-5 minute sustainability impact videos. All of us are flooded daily with a barrage of information. Attention spans have decreased and our ability to listen intently has shortened. Hence the growth of videos, such as with YouTube, that speak specifically to sustainability best practices in a short timeframe that can reach wide audiences. Another effective way to message sustainable development is to “tell stories.” In Grand Rapids, Michigan WGVU radio host Shelley Irwin hosts and airs “Sustainable Community Voices,” where organizations and enterprises across West Michigan share their “sustainability stories” with an audience of ~2.5 MM listeners. The takeaway here is that sustainability best practices are best communicated, messaged, and learned through storytelling.
Effective sustainability communications remain a challenge, as well as an opportunity, for many of us today. There are a variety of communication outlets and options to use for messaging sustainable development. What seems to work best to comprehend sustainability is storytelling. And who should be the messenger or storyteller? Peer to peer leaders in each of our communities are the best resources that can speak directly to and influence key groups across the public, private, and academic sectors. They have earned our respect and trust!