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Summary: Beyond the Green Team: Aligning Internal and External Communication to Advance Corporate Sustainability by Julia L. Goldstein

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The days of switching to reusable coffee mugs and calling your company sustainable are over, says Julia L. Goldstein. Today’s consumers, governments and investors demand that corporations do more to prioritize sustainability. Learn how to support the culture and mind-set shift required at your organization better to protect people, the planet and your profit margin. Goldstein will inspire leaders to reflect critically on how they can embed sustainability into every aspect of their business through various methods, including getting certifications and combating apathy within an organization.

Take-Aways

  • Today’s companies are facing pressure to be sustainable, not just profitable.
  • Making sustainability communications a top priority requires awareness and engagement.
  • Create a “green team” to share your sustainability strategy throughout your company.
  • Drive sustainability efforts with collaboration, openness and transparency.
  • Share your sustainability journey externally and be strategic with your messaging.
  • Collaborate with other organizations to transform industry norms surrounding sustainability.
  • Apathy, knowledge gaps and cost fears block corporate action on sustainability.
  • Nurture a culture shift, working toward long-term sustainability.

Summary: Beyond the Green Team: Aligning Internal and External Communication to Advance Corporate Sustainability by Julia L. Goldstein

Summary

Today’s companies are facing pressure to be sustainable, not just profitable.

Sustainability can mean avoiding depleting the planet’s natural resources or seeing sustainable economic growth. Today’s organizations can achieve both if they rethink what growing sustainably means: Sustainable growth doesn’t have to refer to unchecked, continuous growth but can rather refer to figuring out how your organization can thrive in the long term while considering its impact on the natural world. Many people, including investors, customers and governments, are pressuring you to prioritize sustainability at your organization. Doing so may help you win customers: According to a World Wildlife Federation survey, over half the respondents reported changing brands to support companies better aligned with their sustainability values. ​

“The mantra of ‘profit is king’ and the desire to put shareholder value above all other priorities have defined capitalism for decades. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, it can’t.”

Whether you see pressures to be sustainable as an opportunity or a nuisance threatening your profitability depends on your corporate culture. Consider the following questions to reflect on your journey toward valuing sustainability, both personally and within your organization:

  • What triggers your concern for the environment?
  • What meaning does “sustainability” have for you?
  • Is your company facing any pressure to be more sustainable or disregard sustainability?
  • How prepared is your organization to create and deliver consistent and believable messaging surrounding sustainability?

Making sustainability communications a top priority requires awareness and engagement.

Companies go through five stages in their sustainability communications journey:

  1. Unaware – Your corporate agenda and daily communications fail to touch on topics related to sustainability and environmental, social and governance practices (ESG).
  2. Vaguely aware – People within your organization are starting to understand that they need to take action toward embracing more sustainable business practices.
  3. Aware – Your company website features an ESG or sustainability page while your employees understand the importance of sustainability and its relevance to their roles.
  4. Involved – Leadership encourages workers to prioritize sustainability, while your external communication gives ESG a central focus.
  5. Fully engaged – All the company’s stakeholders view the company as an industry leader when it comes to advancing its sustainability agenda at all levels of the supply chain.

Create a “green team” to share your sustainability strategy throughout your company.

Contemplate creating a sustainability green team at your company, encouraging a core group of workers to steer the creation of the sustainability strategy and communicate it to others. Make sure participants have some authority and ability to enact change, as they’ll otherwise become discouraged. Prioritizing sustainability must also occur on a leadership level, and many companies have begun hiring executives to serve as Chief Sustainability Officers (CSO). The leader in this new role (and similar variants of this role) is tasked with ensuring every employee understands the organization’s position on sustainability and overall strategy.

“Unless a company is committed to honest, open internal communication, the external communication is likely to be inconsistent, confusing, or even misleading.”

You may want to create a sustainability board of directors, identifying a group that will work separately from your corporate board of directors. The sustainability board of directors should be composed of employees (and ideally top leaders) who give feedback on your corporate sustainability strategy, perhaps overseeing it as well. Your sustainability board needs some degree of decision-making power to effectively oversee a needed culture shift toward valuing sustainability. Also consider creating a sustainability committee dedicated to helping leaders announce new sustainability programs and goals while helping people throughout the organization understand their change pathway. When appointing employees to work in new sustainability-centric roles, include individuals from the following departments: Marketing/Communications, Engineering/R&D, Operations/Productions, Finance and Human Resources.

Drive sustainability efforts with collaboration, openness and transparency.

The companies that truly stand out in their sustainability efforts are those that nurture corporate cultures that support collaboration, openness to novel ideas and transparency. Nurture healthy competition to drive sustainability outcomes in a collaborative culture, rewarding workers or teams who excel in their efforts to be more sustainable, whether improving efficiency or reducing waste. There doesn’t always have to be a singular winner – collaborative challenges can provide opportunities for ideas to cross-pollinate.

The company Airbus, for example, invited their employees to contribute ideas related to workplace inclusivity and sustainability. Airbus’s Culture Evolution Director Alice de Casanove used the challenge as an opportunity to foster collaboration, creating hybrid solutions that incorporated different aspects of everyone’s ideas.

“A culture that does not allow for any dissent is not healthy. It stifles innovation and can endanger the safety of employees and customers.”

Research from Oxford Economics and SAP found that under 10% of executives (out of 2000) were sustainability leaders. These leaders set and communicated clear sustainability expectations and guidelines and were more likely to achieve revenue growth exceeding 10% than leaders who didn’t prioritize sustainability. Achieving your sustainability goals requires creating a culture of openness in which team members feel safe to share constructive feedback and ideas. Closed cultures, by contrast, in which leaders make decisions in secrecy and don’t give people an outlet to express themselves, are more resistant to shifting toward embracing more sustainable policies (or even discussing them).

Share your sustainability journey externally and be strategic with your messaging.

Better communicate your sustainability progress to investors, customers and stakeholders by doing the following:

  1. Assess your tagline – Your tagline functions as part of your company’s “public face” and should include a promise to your customers. For example, Danone uses the tagline, “One Planet. One Health” (although it does sell some unhealthy products).Does your current slogan or tagline inspire you, and is your company consistently fulfilling its promise?
  2. Reflect on the possibility of “greenwashing” – Is your organization using misleading messaging that exaggerates its commitment to sustainability? Can you increase transparency and create communications materials that better reflect the reality of your situation?
  3. Audit your website – Does your website properly communicate your sustainability values and practices?
  4. Refresh, redesign or update your website – You can communicate your commitment to sustainability on your home page, your “About” section, your blog and in the resources you link to (e.g., white papers). Substantiate your sustainability successes by linking to news and media clippings on a dedicated ESG page that discusses your achievements. If redesigning your website, ensure visitors can easily navigate it, quickly determining whether your products or services meet their expectations. Don’t make sustainability promises on your website that you aren’t taking aligned action toward.
  5. Publish a sustainability report – Share your sustainability efforts by issuing a report that aligns with the Global Reporting Initiative’s stringent standards.
  6. Get certified – Are there any sustainability certifications, perhaps specific to your industry, that you could apply to differentiate yourself from the competition?

Collaborate with other organizations to transform industry norms surrounding sustainability.

Demonstrate your commitment to prioritizing ESG by getting certified as a “B Corp.” Companies with B Corp status are those that are committed to “the triple bottom line,” which refers to “people, planet and profit.” To get a certification that lasts three years, you need to score high on a “B Impact Assessment,” in which the nonprofit certifying body, B Lab, rigorously assesses whether your company is sufficiently showing its commitment to ESG practices. B Corp companies exist across various industries, including the Unilever subsidiary Seventh Generation (which manufactures household cleaning and personal care products) and some of Danone’s divisions. There’s no guarantee that B Lab will certify you, as they only certify a small percentage of applicants.

“B Corp certification forces companies to examine everything they are currently doing. This is the starting point. Companies can and should celebrate that they’ve earned enough points to qualify.”

Companies are stronger when they collaborate and join forces with others, moving toward sustainability targets together. Consider joining industry associations to connect with other companies who share your commitment to ESG. That said, be mindful that industry associations may also justify environmentally harmful business practices if they represent status quo interests. You can also find support on your sustainability journey by using the Conference Board, a nonprofit organization offering companies resources in areas that include economic development, human capital and ESG.

Apathy, knowledge gaps and cost fears block corporate action on sustainability.

There are three primary challenges, or “bottlenecks,” preventing companies from taking sustainability seriously:

  1. Cost – Leaders may believe they don’t have the option to focus on more sustainability, as doing so might erode profit margins. But they often fail to identify possible ways to change their business model and practices while remaining profitable. For example, what if you slowly integrated sustainability into your supply chain, offering customers the option of gradually switching to more sustainable alternatives? Leaders could also join forces with the competition to incrementally phase out an unsustainable product.
  2. Apathy – When people fail to convince those in power to change their mind-set and adopt more sustainable practices, they sometimes become apathetic, assuming nothing will ever change. Combat apathy by tackling small sustainability issues first to avoid overwhelming people and demonstrate progress.
  3. Knowledge gaps – Many employees lack sustainability training. Help your business evolve, getting buy-in from employees by providing sustainability training and empowering workers to act as a green team, committed to achieving sustainability goals. If your customer base doesn’t value sustainability, don’t be afraid to lose some in the short term – think past the current quarter or year, and you’ll likely see long-term rewards.

Nurture a culture shift, working toward long-term sustainability.

According to Marc Epstein and Adriana Rejc Buhovac, in their book Making Sustainability Work, there are three stages organizations go through when transitioning to more sustainable practices. First, leaders adopt new policies to better comply with environmental regulations and avoid penalties or losing customers. Second, they start gaining a competitive advantage in their sustainability practices, deepening their commitment to protecting natural resources, reducing wasteful energy usage and improving safety. Finally, companies begin planning for sustainability in the long-term, proactively working toward one, five and ten-year goals.

“When your company embraces sustainability as a key priority, the culture will shift in a positive direction.”

Improve your company’s sustainability communications by embracing the following three pillars:

  1. Connection – Create the right team structures (e.g., build your sustainability advisory board) and position your company to collaboratively work with others (e.g., joining industry groups).
  2. Communication – Communicate your sustainability message with honesty, clarity and openness, soliciting fresh ideas and feedback from stakeholders (workers, teams, customers and investors).
  3. Content – Create aligned internal and external communications, sharing your vision, mission and purpose. Build trust through being consistent, and committing to your sustainability goals, as you embed sustainability more deeply into your company’s culture.

About the Author

Julia L. Goldstein helps manufacturers align business and sustainability goals with communication strategies. She’s the author of sustainability-focused nonfiction books, such as Material Value: More Sustainable, Less Wasteful Manufacturing of Everything from Cell Phones to Cleaning Products.

Review

“Beyond the Green Team: Aligning Internal and External Communication to Advance Corporate Sustainability” by Julia L. Goldstein is a comprehensive and thought-provoking book that explores the crucial role of communication in advancing corporate sustainability efforts. Goldstein provides valuable insights into how organizations can effectively align internal and external communication strategies to drive sustainability initiatives and engage stakeholders.

The book begins by establishing a strong foundation on the importance of sustainability in today’s corporate landscape. Goldstein highlights the growing recognition that businesses must not only focus on financial performance but also take responsibility for their environmental and social impacts. She emphasizes that sustainable practices are not merely a public relations tool but a strategic imperative for long-term success.

Goldstein then delves into the core premise of the book: the alignment of internal and external communication. She argues that effective sustainability communication requires a cohesive and integrated approach that connects with both internal stakeholders (employees, executives) and external stakeholders (customers, investors, communities). The author asserts that by aligning these two communication streams, organizations can foster a shared understanding of sustainability goals and create meaningful engagement.

Throughout the book, Goldstein provides numerous real-world examples and case studies that illustrate successful communication strategies and their impact on corporate sustainability. She examines companies from various industries and sizes, showcasing how they have effectively communicated their sustainability initiatives to different stakeholder groups. These examples serve as valuable inspiration and practical guidance for organizations seeking to improve their sustainability communication practices.

One of the significant strengths of this book is Goldstein’s focus on the internal dimension of sustainability communication. She recognizes that successful external communication relies on the commitment and engagement of employees. Goldstein outlines strategies for fostering a sustainability culture within organizations, including employee education, training, and creating incentives for sustainable behavior. By emphasizing the role of internal communication, the book offers a holistic approach to sustainability that goes beyond mere external messaging.

Goldstein’s writing style is clear and accessible, making complex concepts easy to understand. The book is well-structured, with each chapter building upon the previous one, creating a logical and cohesive narrative. The author also provides practical tools and frameworks that readers can apply to their own organizations, such as communication plans and stakeholder engagement frameworks.

While “Beyond the Green Team” offers valuable insights and practical guidance, it does have a strong focus on communication strategies and may not delve deeply into other aspects of corporate sustainability. Readers seeking a comprehensive exploration of sustainability practices beyond communication may find the book lacking in certain areas.

In conclusion, “Beyond the Green Team: Aligning Internal and External Communication to Advance Corporate Sustainability” is a highly informative and practical resource for organizations striving to integrate sustainability into their core practices. Julia L. Goldstein’s expertise in the field of sustainability and communication shines through in this book, offering valuable insights and actionable strategies for aligning internal and external communication to drive corporate sustainability efforts.

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