Oh, Mary

Keeping it on the hush: why PR needs to get loud about sustainability

November 12, 2019
Aleah Appling

Here at Action Mary, I’m learning what it means to be loud and proud, especially when it comes to promoting our clients’ approach to sustainability. This can be difficult to do in a time when many companies have hidden their eco-friendly solutions in fear that changing policy will lead to offput customers…even if it’s better for both consumers and the planet.

Known as the “secret sustainability” phenomenon1, every industry whether it be food and drink, clothing, or manufacturing, has leaders converting to more sustainable practices. This is great, but if they’re doing it in secret for fear that consumers will mistake changes in practice as a smoke stack for price increase, decreased quality, or some sort of admission that they were previously negligent, it may be with good reason. While many consumers are clamoring for sustainable products, many are unwilling to pay more to obtain them. 

Working with our clients such as Aqua Star and Humming Hemp, I’ve seen exactly the type of leaders that are worth the hype and who should be shouting from the rooftops about their dedication to protecting the planet. However, there are many ways to pitch sustainability without jeopardizing client reputation. Here are three things to keep in mind:

1. Avoid greenwashing. Greenwashing is another reason companies like to keep their eco-practices on the down-low – they would hate to attract attention to all of their practices, some of which aren’t as sustainable as others. Reorganizing a brand to minimize waste while maximizing profits takes time, something companies like Patagonia understand. Even though they have had a commitment to be eco-conscious since their founding, it wasn’t until 2014 that they made the bold move to dissolve their sustainability department all together2. That’s because they needed time to transform their brand into one that integrates sustainability into all components of the company. Speaking to client strengths while understanding where they fit in the lens of industry will let their brilliance shine while avoiding media criticism.

2. Sustainability is not all or nothing. Unfortunately, the word sustainability is overused, resulting in misunderstanding about what it is and making it even harder to pitch. Sustainability should be considered on a continuous scale rather than discreetly. 100% sustainability is difficult to achieve, something Patagonia avoids referring to themselves as, even though they come pretty close. It’s important to emphasize the company’s inspiration behind their sustainable practices, because that’s what makes them unique to their industry. Companies like Aqua Star outshine others because they have a genuine passion for working to find solutions to overfishing, not because being environmentally friendly is trendy, but because they understand the gravity of the problem and want to be part of the solution. Change happens slowly, and companies focused on making any part of their practices better for the environment are worth talking about.

3. Some people don’t ascribe to the same definition of sustainable – and that’s okay. Blame it on semantics, but sustainability is in the eye of the beholder. Some people are so stressed about the climate crisis that they aren’t just looking for companies to do better – they’re looking for extreme sustainable solutions that can be very difficult for brands to adopt. This sort of desperation for a complete change in consumerism is both a product of and impetus for greenwashing, which makes PR around sustainability complicated. That’s why secret sustainability has become an increasingly popular way to approach environmental solutions in the private sector. Being an expert on the company’s definition of sustainability, and communicating its vision and goals to the media with consistency and accuracy goes a long way to forming a shared understanding. 

In this time of climate hardship it’s important to continue to incentivize industry to be part of innovating solutions. As our clients’ biggest cheerleaders we should be ready to praise their strengths, while remembering that there’s always progress to be made. Let’s stop keeping sustainability under wraps, and instead shout about it for all the world to hear.