Rachel Brown

New Zealand has an enormous opportunity to show leadership on sustainability, but a large proportion of companies are struggling to identify how it fits into their organisation and communicate it, according to Sustainable Business Network chief executive Rachel Brown.

Ms Brown said NZ had the potential to lead on carbon neutrality, renewable energy and closing the loop on materials, but the struggle to embed sustainability into organisational identity was leading to difficulties in communicating efforts regarding greening operations and products.

While there were some firms in all sectors that were “really progressive and clear on their purpose and good at communicating what they do”, she said, the finance, investment and construction sectors were finding it challenging to spruik sustainability efforts.

For example, she said, some of the very innovative finance products, including the government’s proposed social bonds for health services, lenders that are focused on sustainability and the success of crowd-funding, were all largely flying under the radar.

“It is particularly hard for companies to communicate well about sustainability when they are not sure how to,” Ms Brown said.

In some larger organisations, a number of other factors contributed to the level of difficulty, she said. These include lack of resources for communications activities around sustainability, and in some cases lack of support from senior management or company boards.

Ms Brown said the question for many in the sustainable space was how they could get the whole organisation on board.

It’s about firms looking at what their role is in terms of creating a more sustainable society overall, and communicating that story, she said.

The story needs to be clear and honest

“People admire companies who do good things. But it’s also a matter of making sure that what you are communicating is real and tangible.”

That means companies stepping up and acknowledging aspects of their products they might prefer not to, for example, a paint company that promotes its efforts at paper recycling in its office as proof of green credentials is likely to encounter customers asking, “But what are you doing about toxicity in your products?”

Ms Brown said any communicating around sustainability needed to have a strong f relationship to the company’s purpose. So the theoretical paint company would need to be upfront and communicate clearly what it is doing to progress towards more sustainable, non-toxic products.

Because New Zealand is a small country, she said, people were generally aware of what companies were doing, and this could also be a barrier to communicating about sustainability, as companies fear “looking silly.”

“But even the greenest company out there will have its challenges. It’s how you tell your story [about making progress towards goals and why you’re doing it] that’s important.”

Ms Brown said the word “sustainability” itself threw some people as it could be used by a firm that makes armaments, for example, to try and sugarcoat its products.

Cultivating green messaging skills

The SBN hosted a conference on Thursday 3 September in Auckland, Telling Good Stories, to equip companies with better skills regarding communicating sustainability messages as a way of building brand reputation.

Speakers included Matthew Yeomans, chief executive of UK media consultancy Sustainly; John Heckman, managing director of thinkstep North America; Alicia Darvall, executive director of B Corps Australia and New Zealand; Nicky Bell, Saatchi & Saatchi chief executive; and Mike Pollock, managing director of Ricoh.

“Market research shows there is a gap in public awareness and, when asked, Kiwis find it very hard to name one company doing good work [in sustainability],” Ms Brown said.

The government could use its spending power

She said the NZ government as the nation’s biggest purchaser could be doing a lot more to show leadership in putting sustainability front and centre and “helping the market understand” the imperative nature of going green.

The previous government initiated a program called Govt3 that aimed to use government procurement worth around NZ$6 billion a year to influence firms in its supply chain. However, the current government axed the program in 2009 as a cost-cutting measure.

Procurement is one of the core project areas for the SBN, she said, with the organisation currently working with a number of companies and agencies.

100 per cent renewable energy as a good branding angle

The “biggest nut to crack” in terms of the overall NZ sustainability picture, she said, was showing leadership as a nation by shifting to 100 per cent renewable energy. Due to the high reliance on hydroelectric generation, its percentage of the energy mix currently varies depending on rainfall.

“We still have a lot to do,” Ms Brown said.

“There is such a big opportunity in terms of transport, tourism, food – lots of our big earners [in terms of industries] that can benefit from the hook of 100 per cent renewable energy.”

Closing the loop is another tool

Materials and waste is another aspect where a quantum shift needs to occur.

“If we talk about recycling, people get it. But if we talk about closing the loop on waste, it takes a big rethink,” Ms Brown said.

She said the fact NZ is a small island nation with limited space for landfill coupled with the high cost of shipping waste offshore was a major factor; the other was rising fees for landfill disposal in NZ and new regulations being considered around some categories of waste including e-waste. This is creating a sound business case for closing the loop.

“NZ could easily look at itself as a closed loop [for materials] and try and manage it that way,” she said.

“The main thing is to look at who can influence the design process [of products].”

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