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Getting decision-makers, business stakeholders, and suppliers on board with supply chain sustainability initiatives can be a challenging task - which is why it pays to be careful with the language used when communicating the need for change.
The best way to communicate about environmental, sustainability, and climate-related issues is through hope, not despair. There is a growing level of recognition among sustainability advocates that the negative framing and narrative of fear around climate change has contributed to the lack of meaningful global action.
Research including the Yale Program of Climate Change Communication study has revealed that negative communication leads to a feeling of hopelessness and guilt in individuals, who are subsequently less likely to see any point in taking positive action. The Society for Organizational Learning’s Peter Senge said in an interview with HBR that “the environmental movement is a big culprit in [negative communication]. There has been so much rhetoric about how bad business is that people inside companies feel guilty, and guilty people aren’t going to do bold things”.
Positively framing an issue, however, breeds hopefulness. Focusing on what can be gained rather than what will be lost has been proven to be more effective. The same Yale study found that “people who are hopeful are far more likely to try and convince others to make changes, and to support policies which will mitigate global warming”.
When building a business case for supply chain sustainability, take every opportunity to be as specific as possible. Communicating about individual projects (such as water efficiency, plastic waste reduction, or sustainable packaging) is more likely to win the attention of stakeholders than the mention of an all-encompassing and generic sustainability program.
It is also important to make the need for change relevant to the individual. In her book Turning the Tide, for example, author Lucy Siegle suggests that the reason the anti-plastic movement has gained traction recently is due to the problem being visible everywhere, from beaches to streets. Climate change, on the other hand, “is an invisible problem and subsequently harder to engage with,” she notes.
Supply chain managers should show stakeholders and suppliers how sustainability improvements will positively impact their business or function. For example, demonstrate how sourcing with sustainable farmers will increase the security of supply and therefore lower a key risk concern for that particular category. Another effective way to make your message heard is to stress the immediacy of the problem by showing how it is applicable now, not at some far-away point in the future.
Be a Storyteller
The Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) recommends that for climate change and sustainability messages to be fully absorbed by audiences, advocates should communicate with appropriate language, metaphor, and analogy, and combine their message with narrative storytelling made vivid through visual imagery.
- Appropriate language refers to the importance of positivity when communicating the case for change. Appropriateness also involves tailoring your message to your audience: a stakeholder in finance, for example, would want to see the financial benefits of a sustainable supply chain while a colleague in HR may be more interested in what this would mean for the company’s talent strategy.
- Metaphor and analogy can be powerful tools to make your message understood, but again, language should be chosen with care to steer away from negativity. Al Gore’s famous “boiling frog” analogy for climate change is a memorable – and therefore effective – example.
- Storytelling can win an audience’s attention in a way that can never be matched by showing them a report full of statistics. Effective storytellers look for ways to make people emotionally connected enough to their message to take action.
- Visual imagery including illustrations, photography, and videos are another way to boost the effectiveness of your communication strategy.
Image Credit: VGstockstudio, Shutterstock