Founders, you’re getting sustainability messaging all wrong

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Over the past few years of working with impact-driven startups, I’ve seen the same problem come up time and time again: Most impact entrepreneurs aspire to communicate about sustainability.

They usually take two paths – too social or too scientific – and given that we are at a crucial time in the fight against climate change, it is a huge problem. So here are some tips to improve your communication as an impact-driven founder.

First, let’s start by laying the groundwork. Today’s impact-driven startups will continue to lay the foundation for this McKinsey & Company calls it “impact economics”.

Companies like Tesla, Beyond Meat, and Oatly are just a few examples of the beginnings of the next wave of disruption. A wave of disruption based on the opportunity that sustainability brings.

And this wave of disruption is progressing. In fact, some experts believe low-carbon solutions could replace carbon-intensive technologies in 70% of the economy over the next decade. Bain & Company suggests that “The sustainability revolution is unstoppable” and if the pandemic has shown us anything, it is that we must act preventively to avoid disaster.

But to get there, I think they need to leave behind their social (negative) and technical (fact-based) tendencies and tell better stories about the possibilities that sustainability challenges bring to building a better future.

So what can we do about it? We reframe sustainability as an opportunity.

No one ever asked Negative Nancy to dance

Far too many impact-driven startups continue to communicate sustainability in a negative tone. They talk about what we owe Stop do – steal, eat meat, drive, use plastic, etc. – rather than communicating opportunity this impact creation brings with it.

In turn, they hold back their own growth. For example, this challenge can be seen in sentences that follow this line of thinking: “We only have 10 years to save ourselves from climate change… buy our product” and it’s just not effective.

This line of reasoning has its origins in the glory days of charity and philanthropy. To incite action (make a donation), nonprofits often evoked emotions of fear.

Just think of the images of polar bears on slowly melting ice cubes or starving children during the East African famine of the late 1990s. The customer’s promise was direct action delivery and customer benefit. was the feeling that accompanied the gift.

However, as the way impact was produced on a large scale began to shift from charity to entrepreneurship, these messages have remained the same. This is a problem because:

  • Investors don’t invest in solving global challenges, they invest in companies that can simultaneously create impact and profits
  • Customers don’t buy a product because it solves a global challenge, they buy it because they have a job to do and a product does that job while creating a positive impact
  • Partners and employees don’t join your cause because of an issue, they join because you have a vision for a better future and can help them achieve it
Credit: Agrant141 via Wikimedia Commons