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The Headline Was Not The Story

Updated: Jan 6, 2022


Quick Takes

  1. A recent global survey reports “few people are willing to change their lifestyle to save the planet”--this is a misleading statement serving as a sensationalist headline.

  2. The survey shows that:

  3. People do not believe companies are committed to preserving the environment and the planet;

  4. A majority of individuals are taking actions to save the planet and many want more guidance in doing so.

  5. This is a great opportunity to re-frame your corporate sustainability efforts and communications: Don’t speak of the great things you are doing (people don’t believe you anyways), rather speak of how what you are doing supports others in doing great things.


The Headline

Last week, an article reporting the findings of a survey of nine thousand adults from nine countries looking into how much people are committed to saving the environment made a big splash. Now, of course it was carefully planned to do so.

The survey by Kantar Public , more broadly reported by The Guardian, was published just in time for the COP26 climate conference--and the headline of “Few willing to change lifestyle to save the planet, climate survey finds” was really all it took to go viral.

The survey was well constructed and quite insightful, and the reporting was fair and balanced, but really, I don’t think many people actually read the whole of it. The timely sensationalism of the headline was all the story people wanted to hear (or feared hearing).

The Actual Story

When I read the survey, the most important findings I see are not about people not wanting to change their lifestyle, but rather about a clear opportunity for companies to make a meaningful difference with their sustainability efforts. (Also, and it is important to note, 51 percent of survey respondents would 'definitely act to save the planet’, but let’s not let that stat get in the way of an effective headline!)

This opportunity takes the shape of re-framing how you talk about your sustainability efforts, and it boils down to: Don’t speak of the great things you are doing, speak of how what you are doing supports others in doing great things.

Whether you call it CSR, ESG, or Sustainability, there has been a lot of public relations material of late showcasing companies’ ‘innovative’ actions and ‘bold’ statements and pledges. Annual corporate sustainability/ESG reports are increasingly coming across as portfolios of grand gestures.

But here’s the catch: only 13 percent of survey respondents think that companies are committed to preserving the environment and the planet. Companies are in the lowest standing behind national governments, neighbors and community members, municipal governments, the media, and individuals themselves.

Companies may be doing great things...but very few people believe it. Talking about your commitments and actions is not resonating with your intended audience. As sustainability professionals, this can’t feel good.

Yet there is an alternative to just doing more of the same and hoping for different outcomes.

Further in the survey, we see that 74 percent of respondents are proud of the individual actions they are currently taking for the planet while 55 percent feel they lack sufficient information and guidance about what to do.

These combine to tell us that people do care about being sustainable and that many people want more help in their sustainability efforts. This is the key for corporate sustainability efforts: people may never believe you are a sustainability hero but most want to be their own sustainability heroes.

What Does This Mean for CSOs?

As sustainability professionals, you have never been more needed than you are now. People want to act. People want to make a difference. People are looking for guidance.

Across your products and services, your organizational footprint, your stakeholder engagements, and your innovations and resources, what can you do to make it easier for people to take the sustainability actions they want to take?

This doesn’t mean that you should turn your back on large-scale projects and bold and meaningful actions, but it does mean that there is much more opportunity for impact and resonance beyond just such grand gestures.

  • Committing to be Net-Zero is great. How can your products, services, and engagements help individuals reduce their own emissions profiles?

  • Using recycled materials is great. Now, what can you do to make it even easier for individuals to recycle even more types of materials themselves?

  • The water-use minimization technology you just adopted is impressive. What can you do to make this technology more accessible to smaller businesses and households?

  • You should celebrate your recently acquired third-party certification, but remember that it likely means more to you than anyone else. What can you do to improve the transparency and accessibility of the data and information you compiled to get that certification?

  • Your diversity and inclusion policies are commendable. What are you doing to ensure this success impacts the world beyond your HR department?

Don’t speak of the great things you are doing, speak of how what you are doing supports others in doing great things.


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