Communicating Sustainability internally

Kannan Natesan
4 min readFeb 20, 2017

Internal communication on sustainability is sometimes overlooked, but it is a crucial aspect of a company’s corporate sustainability strategy.

In one of my previous jobs, I worked for a company that had successfully embarked on a sustainability journey. Three years into this journey, we were getting recognized for the work we did, apart from topping every other sustainability indices for our sector. It was then that I got an invitation to attend an internal online presentation on sustainability — it was titled “How to leverage sustainability for sales” and was targeted at sales and account teams. I was pleasantly surprised — happy, as there was a presentation on the subject of sustainability directed towards the employees, and surprised as this was (as far as I knew) the first one on that topic!

So I wrote to the Head of Sustainability, and sought her time for a short meeting. I was granted a slot, and I asked her why the company’s sustainability credentials were not explained to all the employees (apart from the internal corporate notices / newsletters that only some care to read on a regular basis) in a similar manner as it was done for the sales team. She was candid in her reply that the sustainability measures and the special website were made solely for our customers and investors. She had been given a mandate to improve this image of our company, and she had gone about putting processes and practices in place with limited resources in a short time. And I was welcome to organize a meeting with the local employees on explaining the sustainability initiatives and she would support it. Although a bit disappointed, I was able to empathize with her on getting her priorities right.

But effective internal communication of sustainability initiatives and achievements is the first step in building and nurturing a culture of sustainability in a company. It is important to have everyone’s buy-in on these initiatives and that could be achieved only if everyone understood why it was being done. It is also important that this is done early. This thought got further cemented in my mind after (virtually) attending the GreenBiz 2017 recently. In particular, two specific examples of companies’ grappling with issues on positive change triggered this post.

There was a session involving Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) — a large paper and pulp company — on their initiatives on landscape conservation. Only a couple of years ago, APP was a target of scathing criticism for their environmental policies. The company has since turned around, made meaningful inroads into driving genuine and positive change. Apart from many other measures, the company has committed to a zero-deforestation target and has also pledged to restore a million hectares of deforested land in Indonesia. I was thinking of the possible impacts (to business) of these targets like the zero-deforestation. In APP’s case, the zero-deforestation target and a resolve to source only from FSC certified suppliers place enormous constraints on how the raw material is procured and could potentially affect other business functions too. Innovation is the only answer, and a spirited performance from the employees. It is impossible to even set a sustainability target without the support of the various sections of business that could be potentially affected. An effective internal communication strategy could serve to help employees understand the holistic view of sustainability, and to make them partners in creating positive change. It would certainly ease the pressure in having to make (sometimes drastic) changes to the business and make employees willingly participate in the process.

In another session at GreenBiz 17 Steelcase, the US-based furniture company gave some insights into their seven-year journey in transitioning to a circular economy. Steelcase wants to “minimize waste and maximize resource recovery”, and has been working on it for 7 years preparing for this. When asked to give some tips for other companies that may want to make a similar attempt, Dan Dicks, Director — Global End-of-use Services, Steelcase offered that it was important “to get as much buy-in as possible and to get as many people as possible to advocate change”. Transitioning from a well-established linear model to a circular-economy model is tantamount to starting up afresh, building a $3 billion company. To achieve something of that scale and seriousness, employee buy-in is indeed a must-have. Concerted and sustained effort on effective internal communication is the only way to garner the required employee support. This support is crucial to success. I am sure Steelcase must have did this effectively while also learning valuable lessons from the exercise.

Corporate sustainability is a big deal — the purpose and meaning of which must be understood by every employee of the organization that takes these initiatives. It is important to communicate this effectively and continuously, as this is key to instilling a culture of sustainability across the company. When done effectively, the CSR team is reduced to being a facilitator of positive change, while every employee becomes a willing partner in furthering the company’s sustainability agenda.

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Kannan Natesan

I am a sucker for elegantly constructed sentences and I love words. Honing my writing skills here. Support writers like me: https://knski.medium.com/membership