Companies can talk themselves into becoming more sustainable
We should not systematically cry "greenwashing" when companies speak about sustainability.
It is challenging for companies to communicate about sustainability. They are often met with an expectation of exact consistency between their words and actions. If a company that produces goods of high environmental impact, such as jeans, states on their website that they are committed to protecting the environment, they risk being branded as hypocritical. This reflects the traditional view of communication, which holds that communication reports what is actually happening.
But are companies to wait until they are completely green from top to bottom before talking publicly about sustainability?
Called out for greenwashing
When companies communicate about sustainability, they are quickly called out for any suspicion of greenwashing. Greenwashing is, according to Cambridge Dictionary, behaviour or activities that make people believe that a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.
When stakeholders such as customers, investors and employees perceive a lack of consistency between a company’s communication and the company’s actions, trust and reputation are at risk.
Very few companies in Norway today can boast that their activities are completely sustainable. Yet in order to reach the sustainable development goals, it is vital that many more than these few companies speak about sustainability. In fact, there is a connection between talking about sustainability and reaching the sustainable development goals.
Ambitious communication can stimulate change
Research by professor Lars Thøger Christensen and colleagues shows that communication which is ambitious compared to the status quo of the company can stimulate positive development in this area, both within the company, and in turn, in society. This research is founded on an alternative view of communication which holds that communication contributes to shaping reality.
When a company speaks publicly about sustainability ideals and intentions, this has the power to inspire, set standards and formulate their ambitions for the future. This is called aspirational talk. According to Christensen, hearing oneself express ideals and ambitions – while others are listening – is decisive for developing new interests, insights, and practices.
Words are inspirational tools
From this perspective, any distance between words and actions should not automatically be considered as greenwashing. This gap can in fact be positive because it represents a potential for improvement. The words are inspirational tools that may lead to action in their own right. Aspirational talk then, is important for us in order to succeed with social change. In this way, corporate communication can stimulate sustainable development, both within the company and in society at large.
Therefore, if companies lower their ambitions or are to afraid to talk publicly about sustainability in the fear of being criticised and accused of greenwashing, this can negatively impact sustainable development in society. We must make sure that the bar is not set too high so that companies do not dare speak about sustainability. We cannot systematically cry greenwashing when companies speak about ideals and intentions that do not reflect today’s reality. This is not the way to go if we are to reach the sustainable development goals as fast as possible. On the contrary, it is important that companies that still have a long way to go dare to be ambitious on their own behalf.
Talk is cheap?
“Make sure that your company’s sustainability efforts are not limited to your communications and marketing departments.” warns the Norwegian guide against greenwashing. This warning seems to reflect the traditional view of communication, which holds that words are secondary to action. “Talk is cheap” is a well-known saying. But research on aspirational talk confirms that communication professionals play a role in reaching the sustainable development goals that is not to be underestimated.
As long as the intentions behind the communication is real, and the company takes measures to reach their stated ideals, then aspirational talk helps bring us closer to the reality of tomorrow, the way we want it to be.
Talk is not “just talk”. Talk can be a change maker.
Christensen, L. T., Morsing, M., & Thyssen, O. (2013). CSR as aspirational talk. Organization, 20(3), 372–393. https://doi.org/10.1177/1350508413478310
First published in Science Nordic April 22, 2021.