Why Sustainability Storytelling Is Essential and How To Do It Successfully
Sustainability storytelling positions a brand in the ecological conversation. No matter where they are in their journey toward cleaner practices or net-zero emissions, it gives companies a platform for sharing their progress and concerns.
Stories like folk and fairy tales stem from a shared desire to make ambiguous beliefs teachable. Consider the lessons of humility embedded in Cinderella. The obedient endurance exhibited in Jonah and the Whale. Stone Soup’s moral of sharing—even its implicit praise of trickery.
Such narratives try to instill virtues in children. They seek to shape behavior. It’s bedtime indoctrination that goes down like warm milk—especially after Disney slipped many of them into a spoonful of sugary animation.
Standing as we do at a crisis point for the planet, a particular type of old tale is re-emerging today: the world destroying myth. Stories that sound reminiscent of the Aztec’s Legend of Five Suns and Noah’s Ark in the Book of Genesis are creeping into the headlines.
The Global Risk Report 2022 identified climate change as the number one threat to humanity over the next decade. In February, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned “that climate change is a grave and mounting threat to our wellbeing and a healthy planet” and that we face “unavoidable multiple climate hazards over the next two decades with global warming of 1.5°C.”
Dire stuff, but the news wasn’t all catastrophic. IPCC Working Group Co-Chair Hans-Otto Pörtner said that by “restoring degraded ecosystems and effectively and equitably conserving 30 to 50 per cent of Earth’s land, freshwater and ocean habitats, society can benefit from nature’s capacity to absorb and store carbon, and we can accelerate progress towards sustainable development, but adequate finance and political support are essential.”
In other words, we need to change our behaviors.
Likely you, reader, are aware of this planetary code red. According to a McKinsey survey, 66 percent of all respondents and 75 percent of millennial respondents say that they consider sustainability when they make a purchase. Consumers even say they’ll pay more for sustainable products. GreenPrint’s 2021 Business of Sustainability Index found that 64 percent of Gen Xers and 75 percent of Millennials would spend more on a product from a sustainable source.
Beyond demanding cleaner companies and products, consumers will avoid—even malign—brands that they perceive as ambivalent or harmful to the environment. A 2021 global study by Dentsu International and Microsoft Advertising found that 59 percent of worldwide consumers state that within the year they will boycott brands who don't act on climate change.
It’s noble to do the work of bettering a business’s practices without recognition, but the world needs to know in order to magnify that impact. When brands take steps to become stewards of our environment, what can they do to enlist their customers in their cause? That’s where sustainability storytelling steps in.
Sustainability storytelling positions a brand in the ecological conversation. No matter where they are in their journey toward cleaner practices or net-zero emissions, it gives companies a platform for sharing their progress and concerns with the public. Framing scientific developments and project pronouncements in an ongoing narrative can help make sometimes complex topics more relatable and understandable.
"When we're speaking with the public, words like “electrification,” “decarbonization,” and “sustainable operations” are challenging to say and hard to interpret," says Eric Meyerson, VP of Brand and Marketing Communications for smart motor systems Turntide Technologies. "So we ground our broad communications in ideas and words that everyone understands: wasting less energy; spending less money; reducing pollution; energy security; switching from gasoline to electric. We give our products simple names like Smart Motor System and Turntide for Buildings."
Many companies are turning to partners to help steer the conversation. Storytelling like that being done by international cosmetics company Garnier reflects a brand's deep environmental commitment.
“This is why we are partnering with National Geographic,” Adrien Koskas, Global Brand President at cosmetics company Garnier, told CNBC “to create content to educate people, actually 250 million people, on how to become more sustainable every day. How to recycle your beauty products, how to use less water in a beauty routine, and we think it’s a great mission for us, and really helps the consumers in this green quest.”
"Framing scientific developments and project pronouncements in an ongoing narrative can help make sometimes complex topics more relatable and understandable."
Princeton University professor Uri Hasson’s work on the neuroscience of stories shows that listeners who hear the same real-life anecdote show alignment—a kind of neural coupling—in brain activity in regions like the frontal cortices, areas responsible for value-guided decision-making. This means that brand stories about helping the environment can engender real world behaviors, attitudes, agreement, and results. Sixty-four percent of customers said that buying a sustainable product made them feel happy, according to the Capgemini Research Institute. And 54 percent said that they felt an emotional connection to a brand or product that supported the environment.
Adopting a mission like Garnier did is key to sustainability storytelling. But the mission must be believable and relevant to your business. In the rush to address this consumer concern, many brands have been accused of “greenwashing:” dressing up existing practices to appear more environmentally friendly than they are. Fast fashion brands have been especially charged with this.
In an effort to be transparent about their practices, Steve Madden started making its company sustainability report public. On the brand’s website, customers can view the many steps the footwear maker is taking to improve production, adopt circularity, and offset carbon emissions, and how they’re doing in reaching those goals. Transparency and reporting are essential to successful sustainability storytelling. They provide plot points in the rising action, if we’re using a traditional narrative structure. Reports allow the customer to check in to see how the story is going.
"It’s about education and helping people understand the issues that we're contending with globally."
But facts and figures need contextualizing—that’s where Steve Madden’s storytelling comes in. In 2021, the brand launched Cool Planet, a line of fashion-forward footwear that incorporates all the brand’s best sustainability practices—minimizing waste, reusing materials, a global tree-planting initiative with partner One Tree Planted. The hope is that processes used on this sub-line will eventually be integrated into the larger label.
"Steve Madden is excited about this partnership. By partnering with One Tree Planted, we will be able to bring our customers along on our sustainability journey and give them the chance to share in the experience of directly and positively impacting the planet," says Gregg Meyer, Chief Sustainability Officer, Counsel and Head of Corporate Social Responsibility.
Involving and teaching the consumer are core to sustainability storytelling. A BBC Global News study found that 83 percent of APAC shoppers think brands should educate them on the importance of sustainability, and 79 percent want brands to be financing sustainable research.
“No company in isolation can drive all the change without the support and partnership of consumers. They’re an extremely important part of this process” says Frank Renwick, VP of Marketing and Brand at Bowery Farming, a vertical farming and digital agriculture company. “A lot of what we're doing is not just marketing or advertising. It’s about education and helping people understand the issues that we're contending with globally. What are some of the solutions that we can partner on to move forward, to resolve some of these things?”
Ultimately, the consumers, not the brands, are the heroes of the sustainability story, on a mission to save the world. Brands can be companions on this journey, but they should do everything they can not to be the villains.
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