Asian brands should be honest about failure in sustainability reports, say PR experts

There is too much “fluff and waffle” in sustainability reports, said experts at the launch of new guidelines to help brands avoid greenwashing. “Corporate vulnerability”, however, is an untested strategy that will require bravery.

An outdoor billboard promoting Maybank
Advertising signage for a bank in Singapore. Companies rarely talk about failure in sustainability messaging – and this needs to change, PR experts suggest. Image: Robin Hicks/Eco-Business

Companies in Asia should be more honest and show humility in how they communicate their sustainability credentials to reduce greenwashing risk, according to a panel of communications professionals.

Known as “corporate vulnerability”, the idea that companies communicate their failings as well as their achievements in sustainability reports and other public materials is an untested opportunity for corporations to build credibility in the brand and minimise the reputational risk of backlash from making exaggerated claims, experts said at the launch of new guidelines for communicating sustainability in Asia on Tuesday (3 October).

“I would love to see more humility from brands. Sustainability is always changing. Everyone’s learning. Everyone makes mistakes. How powerful would it be for a brand to say: ‘We started off down this path, it hasn’t worked out how we thought it would, so we’re going to review the strategy and start again’?” said Suzy Goulding, head of sustainability, Asia Pacific, Middle East & Africa for public relations firm MSL Group.

Communicating imperfections in sustainability efforts gives industry peers, as well as other companies in other industries, visibility on shared problems that “no one company will be able to answer alone,” said Marta Bigio, senior vice president, sustainability lead, Asia Pacific, at PR firm Weber Shandwick.

Unless companies show “vulnerability” and give other companies the opportunity to rally with them and solve these problems together, then they will stay internal problems that are less likely to be tackled at a systemic level, said Bigio, who previously led communications for sustainable sourcing at consumer goods giant Unilever.

How powerful would it be for a brand to say: ‘We started off down this path, it hasn’t worked out how we thought it would, so we’re going to review the strategy and start again’?

Suzy Goulding, head of sustainability, Asia Pacific, Middle East & Africa, MSL Group

The launch of the Asia chapter of the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA)’s Guidelines on Environmental Sustainability Claims emerges at a time when jurisdictions including South Korea, Australia and Singapore are starting to tighten regulations on sustainability claims to weed out greenwashing.

Glorifying sustainability performance

Even in sustainability reports, it is rare that companies talk about struggling sustainability programmes, how they went wrong and how they were put right, said Goulding. 

“If you haven’t got the confidence to do it [share mistakes] in your sustainability report, you’re never going to have the confidence to do it on a more visible platform,” she said, adding that sustainability reports are rarely read by the public at large.

Communicating corporate vulnerability

Organisational and communication experts are increasingly advocating that vulnerability is important for authenticity and connection.

Brené Brown, a US-based researcher and writer directly challenges the culture of perfectionism with her study on vulnerability and courage in the workplace. Brown’s research also demonstrates that vulnerability, alongside clarity of values and trust, are skill sets that can be taught and learnt for leaders.

Source: The power of vulnerability

Too many corporate sustainability reports are “full of fluff and waffle” and rarely provide the reader with a transparent, honest narrative around what the company is trying to achieve, said Goulding.

Most sustainability reports are “lopsided and unbalanced” and give a “glorified” account of sustainability performance, said Kavickumar Muruganathan, Asia Pacific sustainability and policy lead for computing firm Microsoft.

“This has to change,” he said. “One of the biggest issues is the mental bias that we have in communications, which means that when we put out a sustainability report, it has to shine. We need to break away from this stigma.”

A sustainability report should be a sound basis for sustainability communications, said Goulding.

“You should be able to go to the sustainability report, find strong narratives, honest messaging, detailed data, solid baselines – it should be your go-to document [for sustainability communications],” she said.

But brands should not feel compelled to amplify messaging around every sustainability action, Goulding added.

“It’s really important that that transparency is there, and whoever is interested in checking out a claim a brand makes can find the data and the detail that sits behind the claim. But I don’t think that necessarily means that every sustainability data point has to be communicated,” she said.

Greenwashing risk

The risk that brands are called out for greenwashing most commonly emerges from a lack of understanding of sustainability issues and internal communications failure at the corporate level, said Goulding.

“Sometimes that risk comes from a breakdown in communication on the client side between, say, marketing and communications teams and the sustainability teams, which are still siloed in a lot of organisations – and that is when mistakes happen. It’s the blind leading the blind,” she said.

If trust in sustainability messaging is eroded internally, and that lack of trust is translated into consumer communications, consumers will not know what to believe, she said. “And that is why I think sustainability has an image problem.”

However, if a brand is called out for greenwashing, this is not necessarily a bad thing, Goulding said.

“It gives us the opportunity to think, okay, how did this happen, what did we do wrong and what do we need to put right the next time?” she said.

But will Asian companies ever have the courage to communicate corporate vulnerability?

“I don’t know,” she said. “I would like to think that PR agencies would be brave enough to encourage their clients to adopt that stance [of honesty about failure], and not try to hide [from mistakes and missteps],” she said, though she adds that this in itself might be the problem. 

“In Asia, we [PR agencies] do tend to be a little less forceful when we need more information from a client,” she said.

A junior team member dealing with a client “will not feel empowered to challenge them and say, ‘I need more information on what you’re claiming here,’” she said.

“We do need to find a way to instill bravery in our [PR] agency teams. Acquiring the fundamental level of knowledge in sustainability that underpins the principles [in the PRCA’s guidelines on how to avoid greenwashing] is really important,” said Goulding.

Where should the sustainability function sit to avoid greenwash?

On the panel, the question of where the sustainability function should sit in a company to drive genuine action emerged. Some industry observers suggest that sustainability teams reporting into communications are predisposed to talk about achievements rather than engineer real business change.

Pamela Low, founder of Singapore-based sustainability consultancy Tingkats, and one of the contributors to PRCA’s guide, argues that the sustainability department should be parked in the innovation or operations department, as that is where the most change can happen.

“I’ve been in organisations where sustainability is part of the marketing or PR team, because that’s where they perceive the risk to be,” she said.

“But I believe that sustainability should be where product innovation is, because innovation is where positive impact can happen [to improve the sustainability of a product or service],” she said.

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