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The Latest Corporate Social Responsible News: Sustainable Communications: An Emerging Discipline

Submitted by: CSRwire Weekly News Alert

Categories: Events, Corporate Social Responsibility

Posted: Apr 07, 2009 – 11:59 PM EST


Apr. 07 /CSRwire/ - The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change "for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change" -- in other words, for communicating the challenges of achieving sustainability. Indeed, while some see sustainability primarily as a technical challenge ("how tall does the wind turbine need to be?"), others recognize the key role communications plays in achieving true environmental, social, and economic sustainability ("how can we get all stakeholders to agree on where to site the wind turbine?")

"Sustainable communications" is emerging as a distinct discipline, resulting from decades of the dance between companies and activists striking a balance between business priorities, environmental stewardship, and social justice. Testament to this trend is the 2008 launch of SustainCommWorld, which focuses on the sustainability of the communications process ("what's the carbon footprint of an ad campaign, or a single email message?") as much as the content. More immediately, at least half of the post-conference workshops at Sustainable Life Media's Sustainable Brands '09 focused on sustainable communications, including "New Media for Sustainability" as well as a "step-by-step overview on how to define and communicate a green brand" with Office Depot's Director of Environmental Strategy, Yalmaz Siddiqui.

Diane Verde of the London-based sustainability consultancy Clownfish recently blogged on CSRwire's Video, Commentary, and Research site asking, "what is sustainable communication?" She answers: "It's about dematerialization; increasing the emotional value of brands while decreasing the physical resources that are used in creating their communications." Verde goes on to identify four "Cs" characterizing the content of sustainable communications. For example, "credibility" – consumers, activists, and regulators are increasingly skeptical of greenwash, and no longer tolerate PR fluff but instead insist on claims backed by robust, verifiable technical data. Verde's last "c" is “conversation," referring to digital two-way interactivity between companies and their stakeholders that is fueling a shift from old-school confrontation to the new wave of collaboration.

The rise of web 2.0 and social networking tools is facilitating this shift. For example, companies such as Seventh Generation, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, and Timberland are using JustMeans, the Facebook of socially responsible business, to engage with their stakeholders. Timberland has taken this the furthest by dialoguing directly with its stakeholder on its JustMeans page and hosting quarterly conference calls on its sustainability performance that are open to the public.

In addition to using new-fangled social networking to connect companies and stakeholders, Andy Hoffman of the University of Michigan uses traditional social networking -- you know, those charts displaying social interconnections – to map the spectrum of collaboration between companies and environmental NGOs in a recent article in the Stanford Social Innovations Review. He does so to disprove the myth of "deep green" NGOs that eschew corporate partnerships and "bright green" NGOs that use corporate collaboration to move the needle toward sustainability. In reality, Hoffman demonstrates, communication and collaboration between NGOs and companies spans a broad spectrum, with most interaction inhabiting the middle ground of collaboration, such as those that "bridge" with specific sectors or “independents” that collaborate with specific companies for specific outcomes while maintaining their autonomy.

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