Telling the Story of Sustainability

Often sustainability is so focused on technical solutions and scientific innovations that we lose sight of the heart of the matter. Isn’t it as important to communicate why we need to get to a more sustainable future as how we’re going to get there?

Enter the importance of storytelling, an art that has lagged behind the technical advances of the sustainability movement. Without conveying a compelling story to consumers, employees, and the broader public, any sustainability message is lost in a sea of LCAs, GHGs, and a jumble of other acronyms. The everyday person isn’t going to be motivated by metrics and jargon—they want to understand how it matters to them, they want to feel inspired, and they want to feel as if they’re part of the solution.

Because storytelling hasn’t been embraced as a critical part of the sustainability agenda, the companies most applauded by consumers for their sustainability efforts are not actually making the most progress. They’re just better brand communicators. Imagine how much more credit deserving companies could get if they told better stories. Even more importantly, imagine how much more change we could make in the world.

So what makes for good storytelling? A recent TED talk by Simon Sinek talked about how the great leaders of the world communicate in the same way, which is the opposite way that most of us communicate.

As Sinek says:

“If Apple were like everyone else, a marketing message from them might sound like this. ‘We make great computers. They’re beautifully designed, simple to use, and user friendly. Want to buy one?’ And that’s how most of us communicate. We say what we do, we say how we’re different or how we’re better, and we expect some sort of behavior, a purchase or vote or something like that. But it’s uninspiring.

Here’s how Apple actually communicates: ‘Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user friendly. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?’”

Using this simplest of lessons—start with the why before talking about the how or what—can we revolutionize the storytelling of sustainability? There’s inspiration all around us, whether it’s how Marks & Spencer has articulated an ambitious sustainability agenda with the easily understood Plan A (Because There is No Plan B) to change 100 things in five years, or the simplicity of Chipotle partnering with Willie Nelson for story through song.

Maybe your company can figure out how to make sustainability cool much like Apple convinced us we needed to listen to music differently. Maybe you’ll avoid all mention of that “S” word (recently named the most jargoniest word of the year) and instead communicate your sustainability-related efforts talking about the values that matter most to consumers—such as family, happiness, and quality. Maybe a poet will work alongside your sustainability director to rewrite your messaging. The beauty of stories is that there are many options and no single answer or ending. Just make it authentic, make it relatable, and make it something people want to hear. And always remember that the why is what matters.

The destiny of the world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in. —Harold Goddard



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