What we can all learn from award-winning ESG communications?

by Sophie Cole

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ESG communications can feel like a bit of a minefield to the uninitiated. With so many regulatory requirements to tiptoe around, good copy can get pushed out in favour of excruciating detail and compliance speak. At the other end of the spectrum, unscrupulous companies may use fancy, shiny generalisations to make their dismal sustainability efforts look a bit prettier. Neither is an effective way to make your ESG communications genuinely interesting and informative.

With the release of the CMA’s (Competition and Markets Authority) Green Claims Code in September, which sets out penalties for greenwashing, there is more than reputation at stake now. So it’s more important than ever to get ESG communications right. We’ve picked out some of the best examples of ESG communications (and sprinkled in a few that are somewhat lacking) to demonstrate how it’s done.

Making easy ESG mistakes

 Before we dive into the companies that are getting it right, let’s look at how easy it is to trip up. ESG is an inherently emotional area, particularly once you get into topics such as modern slavery and wage inequality. As such, it’s easy to let your passion for doing the right thing run away with you and miss the mark with your communications.

Tony’s Chocolonely, a certified B Corp that sells 100% Fairtrade products, has made sustainability part of its USP. It was voted as the most sustainable Dutch brand by consumers in 2020 and is vocal about its commitment to producing slavery-free chocolate. But its 2021 advent calendar furore highlights how easily a well-intentioned attempt at highlighting ESG credentials can have entirely the opposite effect.

The company left the eighth window of its ethical advent calendar empty to highlight wage inequality for workers in the chocolate industry. The sentiment was there, but by delivering the message via a medium aimed primarily at children (who probably aren’t ready for conversations about slavery and corruption within supply chains) it rather missed the mark.

Daring to be transparent

 One of the most magical things about words is that they can transform almost anything from unimpressive to showstopping. Yet when it comes to a topic as serious as sustainability, it’s best to temper the flowery language. Great copy can dress a topic up, diminish the ugly bits and elevate it to something worth getting excited about. Equally, there are times when excellent copy simply holds a mirror up to the facts and lets them speak for themselves – even if they’re not all rosy. On a topic as serious as sustainability, clarity and candour are best.

PepsiCo has been lauded for its transparent 2019 and 2020 sustainability reports. The information it presents can be downloaded and split up into sections, showing that it still stands up to scrutiny when taken out of the report’s carefully curated order. Stakeholders and shareholders value honesty and being treated as intelligent equals far more than figures that have been manipulated to seem perfect, and PepsiCo shows it’s on their wavelength.

Humanising the figures

 Being clear about your achievements and struggles doesn’t have to equate to pages of indigestible figures. In fact, if you want to engage your readers, you’ve got to find the human impact in amongst the data. Sustainability agency Lundquist’s ‘gold class’ reporters, which included giants such as Bayer, Unilever and Eni, earned themselves the highest accolades for connecting their communications to substantiated impacts.

These companies were called ‘The Narrators’, as their ESG communications were able to back their claims up with “the kind of robust evidence that users clamour for”, according to Lundquist’s Head of Sustainability, James Osborne. Lundquist’s winners were also lauded for linking their actions to key themes that embody the spirit of sustainability, rather than just showing they’ve hit the benchmarks.

Linking back to key themes and values

 Meanwhile, a group of low-performing companies earned themselves the moniker ‘The Traditionalists’, as they didn’t demonstrate a culture of transparency around ESG issues and paid little attention to digital users. Additionally, these companies focused too much on technical compliance disclosure at the expense of “demonstrating a distinct corporate identity”.

As Lundquist’s analysis demonstrates, engaging ESG comms are about more than ticking boxes. The best reports, blogs and even social posts infuse every sentence with a brand’s unique voice and identity to demonstrate compliance without compromising identity. It doesn’t have to be complicated, either. Rather than simply presenting the figures on your progress on fair wages for all workers in your supply chain, you could hold it up as a living, breathing example of your commitment to fairness, which is a central tenet of your business.

Saying something of worth

 No company wants to be the last one to make their stance on sustainability known. But what’s worse – staying silent until you get it right or putting out a haphazard campaign so you have something to add to the ESG conversation? We believe that both reflect poorly on your organisation, no matter how excellent your intentions are.

Saying nothing could incorrectly give the impression that you’re doing nothing, leading potential customers to mistake your lack of comms for a lack of action. Conversely, hastily publishing something could lead to accusations of greenwashing or misrepresenting your actions. As a result, you’ll look insincere and could even get in trouble with the regulators – even if you are genuinely operating in a sustainable way. Knowing how to efficiently gather the right information and present it in a way that conviction as well as compliance is an art not everyone has mastered.

If you’re struggling to find the words or the time to make a meaningful contribution to the sustainability conversation, we can help. Our expert ESG writers have helped multinational brands get their ESG comms right.

Contact us regarding our ESG communications expertise.


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