With climate change, energy resources and energy security prominent in people¬¥s minds, multinational oil industry pioneer and leader Royal Dutch Shell in recent months has been engaging the media and those interested in a series of live Web-based dialogues, the “Shell Dialogues” series.
The latest, which took place yesterday, was led by Bj√∂rn Edlund, VP of communications. It addressed an important issue: how corporations, and organizations in general, are “Communicating Sustainability.” It’s certainly a topic Triple Pundit, as a journalistic venture, has a strong interest in, not to mention its broader relevance in an era of message spinning, media barrages and information saturation.
The live Web chat was prefaced with access to a video and text transcript introducing the subject that also included Edlund and his team engaging a panel of industry and non-profit experts on the issue. The panel discussion brought together folks active in the advertising, media and environmental/wildlife conservation fields, including Christopher Graham of the Advertising Standards Authority, Lynette Thorstensen of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, Mark Lee, CEO of SustainAbility,and the IUCN’s Dennis Hosack.
The Advantages of Ambiguity
Opening the panel discussion, the Advertising Standards Authority’s Graham pointed out that given today’s heightened public awareness of climate change, CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions and environmental degradation, it’s only natural that marketers want to “hitch their wagon” to a rising sense of environmental awareness and concern.
He added that doing so is something of a two-edged sword, however. “While you’re addressing an audience that’s quite receptive to those sort of arguments, you’re also facing quite well informed critics. Often well informed, and also deeply cynical, or at least skeptical.”
Ambiguity of words and images is something that marketers have long exploited to their advantage. In the context of “green” marketing and information saturation, it’s often enough to put out claims of sustainability whether or not they’re actually true according to any one person¬¥s definition of the term. Though widely used, the word “sustainability” itself is ambiguous and is interpreted differently by message proponents and their audiences, noted WBCSD’s Thorstensen.
Avoiding the Issue?
Agreeing on definitions of fundamental terms hence becomes a prerequisite to engaging in any really productive form of cooperative enterprise that aims to support the development of sustainable business and other activities.
The CEO of SustainAbility, Mark Lee, espouses what’s known as the Brundtland definition. “I think that it is rich and deep, that brought together very clearly the notion of environmental, social and economic. That there is the triple bottom line aspect to sustainability; it’s not one or the other, it’s each and it’s all three.”
Avoiding what’s clearly a contentious issue is not the best approach, according to Lee. “I think the point is, it is incumbent upon you to talk about these things incredibly carefully and with fantastic evidence, both based on current performance and on the path they intend to take from today to whatever future is being described.”
Falling Back on Government; Failure of Leadership
SustainAbility’s Lee made the insightful point that wary of public backlash and negative attitudes towards them, the big oil multinationals have drawn away from public view and instead focused on influencing politicians and government. “They’ve pulled together under a similar language, a similar public policy position. Lots of turning to government and saying, you know, it’s up to you to give us good policy that we can follow. This company has at one point said you know, government sets the mix and we provide the best fuels within that mix.
“There is no question that we have a failure of political leadership vis-a-vis sustainability at the present time and probably again around climate. But that to me is not an excuse for five of the ten largest and economically and politically most powerful private institutions on the planet not to take a more aggressive leadership position themselves.”
If they are to avoid the pitfalls associated with “greenwash,” companies need to avoid talking generalities and focus on the specifics of their efforts to become more sustainable, according to Thorstensen. She made the salient point that while Shell is doing a lot in terms of mitigating the detrimental impacts of its operations on the environment, biodiversity and communities, there are stakeholders, and “green organizations in particular who will never accept that fossil fuels are sustainable.”
As the world’s largest shareholder-owned producers of fossil fuels, Shell and its peers, often serve as “projection surfaces” for NGOs looking to galvanize the public into action on one particular aspect of Shell’s activities, Edlund said. “But they also have to understand that we have to deal with a wider group of stakeholders, governments, customers, our own employees, business partners and so on and so forth…The most important thing is that we talk to each other and come to some sort of understanding of the basic facts and issues at hand…
“I think we have to be part of the debate because we’re at the center of it. Energy is a controversial issue and it’s very difficult and a very necessary thing to talk about.”