It’s Q1 2024, and our planet and its climate are under a major spotlight as we enter uncharted territory; surface temperatures and global tensions have never been hotter. Visibility around corporate action and inaction has never been more prevalent, and all eyes are on how our global leaders and the corporations they represent respond to calls for urgent, massive climate action and decisive stances. 

In this era, one where climate change and sustainability are at the forefront of public consciousness, the way brands communicate their “green” initiatives has never been more crucial. Companies can’t get away with half-hearted lip service to environmental issues, and for them it impacts all aspects of their business: revenue, hiring, retention, partnerships, investments, and so much more. 

Younger generations demand authenticity and transparency in sustainability messaging, and they’re actively looking for brands to step forward and lead the way. These generations know that just 100 global companies were responsible for 71% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions over the past three decades, and it’s reasonable for them to expect these same companies to take responsibility and lead from the front. 

Mastercard data shows that 85% of consumers say they are willing to take personal action to address sustainability. But increasingly, they expect to see brands follow suit — 67% expect brands to make a positive contribution to society, as well.

So as we look at how brands can communicate their sustainability initiatives effectively, it’s important to view it from this lens: educated, technologically advanced generations, who are most at risk for the impacts of climate change, can see right through empty, performative actions. As a result, brands are expected to not only engage in sustainable practices, but also to communicate these efforts effectively and authentically to their audience. Their business depends on it. 

Best Practices for Effective Sustainability Communication

So what can brands do to proactively combat potential allegations of greenwashing and ensure their sustainability initiatives are well received?

Let’s start with transparency. First and foremost, brands: you need to be clear about your sustainability goals, progress, and the challenges you face. Honest communication builds trust and credibility. But you also need to be aware that if you, like Lululemon, preach about cutting emissions but then actually contribute 9 times the emissions you say you do, your trust and credibility will be lost. 

It’s time to look past baseline storytelling, because compelling narratives only go so far. To connect your sustainability efforts to a larger purpose, you need to actually do the work you profess. Cut those emissions, shift your packaging, and live up to your own hype. This way, when you do release your annual sustainability or impact report, or launch ads about what a sustainable company you are, your message will be credible.

Next, because you’re putting your money where your mouth is, encourage open and frequent dialogue with your audience, partners, and investors. Use social media, surveys, and community initiatives to foster a two-way conversation. You won’t have to worry about it going wrong, because remember, we’re actually doing the right thing in 2024. As a brand, if you’re not going to do the right thing, don’t bother communicating. You WILL be found out, and you can kiss ever-coveted sales and brand loyalty goodbye. It’s business critical to ensure that your sustainability message aligns with your actions and is consistently conveyed across all communication channels. 

Media plays a pivotal role in shaping public perceptions of brand sustainability, because positive media coverage can enhance your reputation, while negative coverage can cause backlash. (Looking at you Kelloggs. How’s that cereal for dinner messaging going?) By leading from the front and communicating your actions frequently and transparently, brands can build strong relationships with media platforms that prioritize environmental reporting. 

Ultimately, sustainability and climate messaging shouldn’t be an afterthought, it needs to be a key element of your overall ethos; your operating methodology and communication strategy. Every action is a message, whether internal or external, and it reflects your commitment to sustainability. Today, a commitment to sustainability and doing the right thing is a commitment to the people you employ and the planet we all live and work on. 

The future of sustainability communication will likely see an increased emphasis on technology and data to track and showcase environmental impact, a greater focus on local and global partnerships for sustainability, and an evolving regulatory landscape that will shape how brands communicate their sustainability efforts. It’s only going to be more important for brands to get on board and lead the way, so you’ll want to start now if you haven’t already. And as the importance of sustainability continues to grow, the way brands communicate their environmental efforts will increasingly define their reputation and resonance with consumers.