Internal and external communications

The development and implementation of sustainability strategies requires a holistic and joined-up approach to ensure that action in one area does not compromise progress in another. It also requires the understanding, 'buy-in' and support of management, employees, customers, investors, suppliers and customers alike.

For these reasons, good internal and external communications can be crucial to ensure the successful development, implementation and long-term resilience of a company's sustainability strategy. Communications play a particularly important role in communicating the business case for action.

The British retailer Marks & Spencer (M&S) offers what is widely regarded amongst corporate sustainability professionals as one of the best examples of how good corporate communications can help to deliver sustainability and corporate objectives. During the 1990s and early part of this decade, the company was finding it hard to differentiate itself in a positive way from many of its competitors, particularly the larger supermarket chains (which had expanded into clothing and other non-food items once considered the preserve of M&S). M&S needed something that would enable the company to reassert its traditional strengths to its customer base but in a fresh way.

In January 2007, and with a very high-profile advertising blitz, the company launched Plan A, which represented the company's response to 'the most important social, environmental and ethical challenges we face'. It included '100 Plan A commitments' that 'set sustainability targets for 2012'. The launch text said: 'We're doing this because it's what you want us to do. It's also the right thing to do. We're calling it Plan A because we believe it's now the only way to do business. There is no Plan B' (Marks & Spencer, 2009).

The 100 Plan A commitments were categorized into five headings: climate change; waste; sustainable raw materials; fair partner; and health. The climate change category is introduced with the following preface:

We aim to make all our UK and Irish operations carbon neutral by 2012. We'll maximize our use of renewable energy and only use offsetting as a last resort. And we'll be helping our customers and suppliers to cut their carbon emissions too.

In total, there are 29 commitments on climate change, including:

1 Carbon neutral: aiming to make all our UK and Republic of Ireland operations (stores, offices, warehouses, business travel and logistics) carbon neutral.

2 Energy efficiency (stores): reducing the amount of energy we use in our stores by 25 per cent per square foot of floor space...

7 Green electricity: sourcing or generating 100 per cent 'green' (renewable) electricity for M&S stores, offices and distribution centres in the UK and Republic of Ireland... 10 On-site renewables: having 20 per cent on-site energy generation from renewables in all new builds where practicable. (Marks & Spencer, 2009)

Plan A was promoted heavily through TV and print advertising, in store displays and bold signage on delivery vehicles. Most adverts or displays focused on just one of the 100 Plan A commitments and gave the impression that it has been selected by random from the longer list.

The campaign was very successful because it combined passionate simplicity ('There is no Plan B') with a level of complexity and detail (achieved through the individual commitments) in a way that conveyed decisiveness, substance and credibility.

I know of many corporate sustainability professionals that are jealous of what M&S achieved with Plan A. It might be that other companies had similar or equivalent sustainability commitments in place; but none of them managed to convey them in such an engaging, yet comprehensive manner, and in a way that has helped to deliver on much broader corporate objectives. In other words, it was the communications element to Plan A that made it successful on both sustainability and commercial criteria.

There are, of course, plenty of companies that have done a poor job in communicating their work on climate change. I know of corporate responsibility professionals that have put good climate change strategies in place but because they have failed to communicate them in a positive and engaging way to colleagues, customers, shareholders and other stakeholders, their work has been called into question.

Just as common, unfortunately, is the propensity for corporate communication departments to do a 'PR job' on climate change and overstretch a company's performance. 'Greenwash', as it has become commonly known, is easy to spot and, in my experience, does far more harm than good to a company's credibility in the debate.

A company's communications on climate change should seek to tell a simple and honest story: where they have come from on the issue, where they are now, what their future strategy is and why. If it can do this in an interesting and engaging way, using targets and data where appropriate to avoid bland assertions and 'wish lists', and if it can share challenges just as openly as it shares successes, then its efforts will be recognized and appreciated by the vast majority of stakeholders.

These first five areas of action will be familiar to many people who follow how companies are responding to climate change. Sound performance is needed in each area if a company is to avoid being exposed to reputational risk or being caught out by the rapidly changing policy context.

There is a limit, however, to the level of change that can be brought inside or outside a company by action in these five areas. Even if the majority of large companies were performing well in each of these areas, the most that would be achieved would be incremental change. And, yet, the scale of the climate change challenge requires nothing short of a transformational change in how we manage the global economy.

It is for this reason that I argue that for a company to have a truly comprehensive and credible response to climate change, its strategy must also ensure that it is taking action in two additional areas: business model and strategy, and interaction with public policy.

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