By Jeff Sutton
Over the last decade, we have seen social media and sustainability play an increasingly important role in the way that businesses conduct and talk about themselves. Together they’ve helped push corporations to new levels of transparency, opened up avenues for greater engagement, forced organizations to rethink their role in society, and aligned individuals, businesses and communities around shared purpose.
Unfortunately, for all the common benefits, many companies still haven’t quite figured out how to put the two together effectively. This article puts it bluntly: “Brands are blowing a major opportunity to communicate their sustainability initiatives to millions of consumers with social media updates that are ‘inane, safe and saccharinely artificial in their bonhomie.’”
This study by the Pew Research Center in association with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation found that “clear majorities of Twitter (63 percent) and Facebook users (63 percent) now say each platform serves as a source for news about events and issues outside the realm of friends and family.” Social media has quickly taken a front seat to other, more traditional ways of receiving information – and the trend shows no sign of slowing down. If sustainability messages seek to reach specific audiences, it stands to reason that those messages should be communicated through the audiences' preferred channels.
But identifying proper channels is only one part of the equation. Organizations must then engage audiences – no short order in light of the amount of messaging vying for users’ attention. According to cio.com, Facebook’s 1.44 billion monthly active users sent out an average of 31.25 million messages every minute – and that’s only one network. That figure doesn’t even begin to account for LinkedIn, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Medium or any of the host of other social media apps available to users. Making sustainability messages stand out in an ocean of noise means doing more than posting links to a report PDF.
What follows are a few examples of companies that have risen above the social media fracas to effectively engage with audiences on their sustainability initiatives.
In April, H&M utilized a strong social media push to raise awareness for the brand’s sustainability programs and reduce the environmental footprint of the fast fashion industry. Using the hashtag #WorldRecycleWeek, H&M encouraged customers to “close the loop in fashion” by recycling unwanted clothes at their stores.
While many people have questioned the fast fashion giant’s agenda or decried it as corporate greenwashing, leveraging the power of social media provided H&M the platform to engage with these critics and respond publicly to through exposure and awareness of their sustainability efforts. No matter what you thought, if you interacted with the brand at all, it was there, in your face, and difficult not to notice.
The social media rollout surrounding #WorldRecycleWeek is especially noteworthy in the way that it catered directly to audiences and demographics that might not normally spend much time thinking about issues of sustainability. Rather than using social media to call out facts and data about the environmental ills of non-recycled clothing (very little of which would likely have resonated with an average fast-fashion consumer), an online music video by musician M.I.A. urging H&M’s customers to “rewear it” and be part of H&M’s sustainability initiative. Through their efforts, H&M used social media to “dress up” its sustainability story.
Outside the realm of environmental sustainability, Toms shoes regularly uses social media to promote initiatives in the arena of social good. Once a year, Toms promotes One Day Without Shoes using the hashtag #withoutshoes on social media to raise awareness about children's health. Last year, they gave shoes to over 27,000 children based on the results of the one-day campaign.
As noted in the video that accompanies this article, consistency is a key part of building a corporate social responsibility (CSR) message that resonates, and Toms provides a compelling example of how effective this can be. Last year marked the ninth year that Toms has run the campaign – and it's already planning for 2017. This consistency demonstrates that the brand is dedicated to their initiative for the long term. And, more importantly, it gives the campaign a chance to grow. Next year will likely be bigger than ever.
Outside the realm of consumer-facing brands, the software corporation SAP has also found success in communicating its sustainability efforts through social media. The company created its own separate Twitter account (@sap4good) for its sustainability and corporate responsibility initiatives and posts enough compelling content to gain over 15,000 followers. Much of the company's success rests in the fact that SAP posts more than what it is doing for sustainability on its own end; it also utilizes social media by engaging with users, collaborating with peers and sharing interesting posts from other organizations – creating a truly social community.
As sustainability professionals, we regularly have the opportunity to interact with organizations that are doing amazing things to benefit our planet. Some of these organizations have become quite adept at interweaving sustainability initiatives into their social media – and they’ve begun to reap the benefits. Unfortunately, we’ve also seen examples of initiatives that go largely unnoticed, simply because they aren’t communicated effectively.
For many of these corporations, the challenge is understanding how to effectively engage their audiences on these topics using language and media that may be foreign to the boardroom. For brands and marketers, social media channels have been a mainstay for years, but many corporate communications and sustainability teams have been much slower to adapt. Which is a shame, because social media is more than just a marketing tool, it’s a powerful platform for driving engagement on critical issues with your core audiences (and ones that historically may have been unheard). In today’s world, if you're not talking about these issues on the channels where your audience lives, the message may be interpreted that they aren't important enough to discuss.
There is no debating that both social media and sustainability have proven to be a tremendous force for positive change. Now as sustainability practitioners, we just have to find the creativity and desire to learn how to use them together.
Jeff Sutton is the Vice President of thinkPARALLAX, a sustainability communications agency committed to building brands with purpose. Their work sits at the intersection of business strategy, corporate responsibility, and communication. Creating communication strategies, campaigns, and stories that influence behavior and drive positive change in the world and greater business community.
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