Consumers are increasingly adopting a more sustainable lifestyle, by reducing food waste or their use of single-use plastic, reducing the amount of new products they buy, or buying more seasonal produce. Consequently, consumers are increasingly choosing brands that build their initiatives on sustainable and ethical values – requiring brands to communicate their sustainability strategy in a clear and meaningful way that resonates with potential customers.
Understanding sustainability communication
Scholars and practitioners have many ideas of and terms for such sustainability communication, including but not limited to green; global responsibility; environment, social governance (ESG); corporate social responsibility (CSR) or corporate sustainability communication. At their core, however, lies the same idea: a brand communicates how it works to be environmentally and socially responsible, while being economically successful. Simply speaking, sustainability communication is about showing that your brand is meeting the expectations of its stakeholders. These stakeholders, which includes employees or investors, as well as consumers, want to see which sustainability strategy your brand is committed to, and how you are progressing on your targets up and down your supply chain.
Traditionally, sustainability communication strategy was merely an element of what public corporations had to do, in order to comply with rules and regulations. Such corporate communication was therefore largely geared towards investors above all other stakeholders, and therefore focused on ESG, rather than sustainability reporting. Large corporations of course still uphold their regulatory ESG obligations, by informing on their environmental impact as well as their social impact (typically by sharing metrics on carbon emissions up and down the supply chain or value chain, or case studies on their partnerships for sustainable development goals). In recent years, however, expectations of sustainability reporting have shifted towards the consumer, as the primary stakeholder to bring along to a brand’s sustainability journey. And there is one consumer group that brands should be paying particular attention to.
Getting to know Gen Z
Gen Z is the consumption generation of tomorrow, and brands need to start listening to their wants and needs today. Our generation is different than our Millennial siblings, our Gen X or Boomer parents: Gen Z currently represent 26% of the population with a buying power of US150 billion, and we are digital natives and coming of age during the climate change crisis and a global pandemic. With 75% of global Gen Z agreeing that our world is at a tipping point, it does not come as a surprise that our generation is pushing for climate change and sustainability issues (for example, biodiversity) to be a top priority for government, NGOs and brand initiatives alike – and to go beyond building a business model ‘just’ on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. To achieve a greater sustainability performance by these players, Gen Z use all the tools in their belt – the most important of which is, of course, social media.
This post on the dangers of climate change is just one of many examples that show just how serious our generation is about sustainability issues, and changing the world for better, and how they are using the social networks at their disposal to amplify their voices. Whether it is Instagram, TikTok or Twitter, Gen Z are sending a clear message that brands need to pick up on: they will not buy from or engage with a brand that they do not deem to be environmentally and socially responsible or aligned with their personal values. In order to effectively communicate their sustainability practices to Gen Z, brands must therefore utilize two key tools:
- Social media
The need for effective communication on social media
Digitally communicating your initiatives on sustainability developments is no longer merely about publishing sustainability reports on your website; it is about diversifying your communication channels to showcase all aspects of sustainability your brand has taken to heart. Digitization has allowed consumers access to a wide array of information sources, meaning they are able to make that much more informed decisions about brands. Enabled by social media, young consumers in particular have even greater opportunities to learn about the credibility of brands, and share their opinions in real time.
More than 60% of Gen Z use social media, like Instagram and WhatsApp daily, with new players like TikTok quickly gaining share. While TikTok is still predominantly sought out for its fun and entertaining content (80% of global Gen Z social media users, outside of China), Instagram in particular is a source of news and information (58%) as well as a means to find information about products and brands (69%). Gen Z will not simply buy your product, they will first follow your social media accounts or check out influencers you collaborate with, to learn what your company is truly about. Brands such as Impossible Foods, one of the market leaders of plant-based meat, are demonstrating their commitment to being a part of the solution online – and are successfully reaching Gen Z with their message.
Sharing your message online does not only have the advantage that you can more easily measure your outreach (and adapt accordingly), but that the interaction with your audience is made easier through fun, entertaining, yet informative image and video content. One of the reasons that TikTok is gaining so quickly on its main competitor Instagram, is the entertainment its short-video format means to a Gen Z audience, because it prioritises creative self-expression, and authenticity. Why is this important? Because brands need to be aware that demonstrating commitment online, potentially bears a higher risk of backlash when actions or campaigns are perceived to be untransparent or inauthentic by online communities. Let us take a closer look at that.
The need for authenticity when delivering sustainability messages
Brands like Impossible Foods do not require flashy campaigns online to show their sustainability work, and engage their Gen Z audience, because they manage to show authentically that they do not just talk about their sustainability efforts – they walk the talk. Walking the talk means not more, not less than being credible and trustworthy.
As you know, Gen Z are digital natives, so we can tell if what is being presented to us online, is authentic or not. Gen Z will always fact-check what you are saying and how your brand presents itself on its website, social media, and other channels. As a consequence, our generation is able to tell if you cannot back up your words with actions accordingly. On our Instagram, we recently highlighted the issue of rainbow-washing (Yes, there is more than just greenwashing going on!). Many brands come out in support of the LGBTQ+ community during the month of June, by colouring their logo as a rainbow flag. Too often, support stops there, and a quick Gen Z fact-check tells us that these brands have not much else to show for, and the companies sometimes lack the diversity they claim to promote (for example, lacking LGBTQ+ people in leading managerial or board positions).
When your online audience picks up on such inauthenticity, backlash is almost inevitable. Let us look at a brand that faced tremendous online backlash for an ad that went wrong in more ways than one. Who could forget Pepsi’s infamous ad, featuring Kendall Jenner from 2017, which resurfaced following the worldwide #BlackLivesMatter protests after the killing of George Floyd in 2020. The ad has been accused of being tone-deaf and inappropriate, leading to Pepsi quickly pulling the ad and issuing a statement of apology. Accepting responsibility is not the only important step a brand takes in this scenario. The next campaign must show that our feedback and concerns have been heard, have had an impact on a brand’s actions and mistakes are not being repeated.
There we have it! Communicating sustainability efforts and sustainability commitments to your customer of tomorrow, is a critical business strategy for any brand. It means showing up online and sharing your commitment and progress on your social media channels – because that is where Gen Z is. Being authentic in your communication, first and foremost means that you follow up on your promise with pragmatic action, and second, that you choose an effort that is truly material to your brand – rather than vaguely wanting to save the whole world. No Gen Z will think of that as trustworthy or realistic, believe me.