Skip to main content

The way we communicate is not fit for the net zero carbon age

Sustainability By Jonnie Allen, Partner – 14 September 2023

Aerial view of green forest in summer at dawn with glowing technological communication lines, created with Generative AI.


Jonnie Allen underneath a tree with buildings in the background

Jonnie Allen

View bio

Originally published in Professional Marketing Magazine September/October 2023 edition.

Marketing teams love a first, a win, anything that puts clear water between us and everyone else. This competitive mindset drives advancement and progress and so has its place, but when we are facing massive global challenges, it is the wrong approach. It is the definition of zero sum; we win, everyone else loses.

Greenwash or just an eco-cycle?

I hate the term ‘greenwashing’ and the culture around this. It makes me sad. I feel that the more it is thrown around, the greater the chance that we will fail to overcome the challenge ahead of us. People are so scared of being accused of greenwashing that they feel it is better not to share what they have done. We have clients that are doing great things but are scared to talk about them because they don’t feel it is enough and they will be shot down. If every achievement is questioned, belittled and disputed then we will achieve less, and we desperately need every achievement.

The fact that people, businesses, organisations and governments are all wanting to shout about their achievements is to be applauded. Just think how far the conversation has come. A few years ago, there was a huge number of people that didn’t believe in climate change, and for most organisations it was not on the corporate agenda. Now it is everywhere, and that is great. Let’s not ruin it.

This is summit else

Writing personally, where I think we have gone wrong is that we are using the old marketing approach to communicating the climate change problem and it does not fit. Climate change is something we will be battling with for decades; it is a long journey and there are not going to be winners, so everyone needs to stop saying they have won.

Think of the old approach like the race to climb Everest. Who is going to get their flag into the summit first? That person is the winner, a place in history awaits, and everyone else loses. The challenge now is that we are trying to get everyone to the top of Everest and if we don’t all get there we fail. No wonder we get annoyed with all these people planting flags everywhere! But every step, every milestone, every new idea that helps the collective effort is really important.

Aim, achieve (or fail), share, repeat

The change we need to make is small but very significant. It is really important that everyone shares their successes because we need to advance (and let’s face it we need good news). The change needed is that your success is not the end of the journey. We all need to learn from it.

It is really very simple; if you share your success, tell the whole story. Share the process you went through with the challenges and problems faced, including the failures. Then it is something you can be proud of. It is something everyone can learn from, and it gets us all closer to the summit.

This will also make it much harder to be accused of greenwashing. If you read about a business saying that they have done something they are proud of and they tell you how they did it, what went wrong along the way and what they would do better next time, it is much harder to shoot down.

PR and communications teams in a cold sweat

I don’t think this is such a hard change for most people in most organisations to make. But I do think that the biggest challenge is with the teams that are responsible for polishing or spinning the message.

I imagine that for a lot of communications teams this will be challenging and perhaps a little scary. Look down most corporate website news sections and there are only wins and firsts; they are polished to give the impression that the organisation is a 24/7 success factory. Only good things happen and there are never mistakes. Luckily nobody believes this anyway, and if none of us made mistakes then climate change would not be knocking down the door.

If you are a PR or communications professional, this is your opportunity to craft balanced, engaging stories that share successes as your organisation takes each step on this long journey to collective success.

If you are a leader, lead. Change the tone in your organisation. Get people working together to make progress big and small. Celebrate the wins, tell the whole story, share lessons learned and give others something to build on.

It’s all academic

This approach makes me think about how we communicate scientific research - a good example of how you make progress. Research is undertaken, shared and others learn from it and move it further forward. A good academic paper has the hypothesis, method, results, conclusions and, crucially, finishes with further research that is needed. It is this last bit that is key. This is not a failure or a weakness, it does not belittle the achievement of the conclusions but acknowledges that research always moves on. A discovery is not the end of science.

This is a good aid for how we communicate when it comes to sustainability. Everything needs to move the process on. This doesn’t mean you don’t celebrate your successes; remember that through this journey we need good news. It helps encourage and motivate others.

If you win, we all lose

The challenge of climate change is massive and should be all consuming, but I am optimistic for lots of reasons. I see so much progress within the built environment, finance, government and in people’s individual decisions. The momentum is building and some of the things I am involved with in my day-today work are inspiring.

Just as we are having to change how we do so many things, marketing and communication has to learn, improve and play its part. Just don’t mistake your celebration of your first step out of base camp for the last step to the summit.