"Just Transition" and Its Implications for Communicators

How can communicators talk about a "just transition" in a way that connects with business outcomes and brand purpose?

A sustainability plan is no longer a “nice to have.” Those days are over. And audiences, particularly the believers in brand purpose, demand proof that sustainability is inexorably linked to your organizational purpose, strategy and culture. As both a business driver and a strategic imperative, a brand’s ability to tell its sustainability story effectively to all stakeholders is increasingly linked to its reputational and commercial success.

The concept of sustainability has also evolved from a focus on the planet to an expanded definition that includes not only saving the planet but creating equity while doing so. In other words, a sustainable business today has to be both ecofriendly and socially responsible. That means, for example, sharing the costs and benefits of a green transition by retraining affected communities so that no one is left behind. This is known as a “just transition” and is the focus of our Brands in Motion report, “Making Net Zero Net Positive for Everyone.”

1. Recognize that sustainability is a "need" and not a "want"

A recent poll revealed that Australians are more engaged than ever on the topic of sustainability and, as proven by the federal election earlier this year, are prepared to vote for tougher action on climate change. These changing attitudes and behavior of millions of Australians will inevitably impact decisions made in boardrooms across the country: Nearly half of corporate leaders surveyed believe that shareholders will be willing to accept decreased returns to accelerate sustainability.

Forward-looking investors understand that brands with strong Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) profiles consistently outperform the broader market. For instance, Unilever’s purpose-led Sustainable Living Brands grew 69% faster than the rest of the business in 2018 while contributing to the company’s ambition of halving its environmental footprint.

While leaders may understand that creating a more sustainable world requires long-term investment, they will need to assure skeptics, internal and external, that the price of not acting is significantly higher than investing in a more sustainable and equitable future.

2. Walk the sustainability talk

As consumers, investors and employees become more aware, more educated and more demanding of businesses and their climate commitments, they are more likely to see through greenwashing practices. Regulators are also demanding more transparency. Just this year, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) released its greenwashing guidance for sustainability-related products issued by financial entities, increasing the degree of accountability and the consequences faced by companies. Therefore, it is important that brand actions are authentic, transparent and measurable.

To start, close the management gap. While “Making Net Zero Net Positive” found that 88% of C-suite and executive-level officers in Australia strongly believe that sustainability is a significant internal priority for the future, only slightly more than half of senior and middle managers agree. The key to successful change management lies in effective communication, and business leaders need to be willing to lead internal conversations about sustainability strategies for internal alignment.

3. Think beyond single-issue sustainability

Last year, WE’s “The Bravery Mandate” found that stakeholders expect brands to make a difference on issues beyond the traditional remit of a business. Australian leaders agree. When surveyed, respondents ranked the top three community-based initiatives — investing in projects to protect livelihoods (72%), addressing local impact (66%), and promoting diversity and inclusivity (56%) — higher than their global counterparts.

These initiatives could take the form of protecting jobs in communities most affected by floods, bushfires and drought, improving healthcare or access to vaccinations in vulnerable communities, or creating opportunities for minorities to pursue education and careers in sectors not traditionally diverse.

4. Invest for a long game and impact

Globally, the top misconception that respondents face is the notion that sustainability targets and programs are too expensive and not a justifiable expense. In fact, sustainability can be a differentiating factor that drives growth.

Brands should devote resources to tackling misinformation, convening conversations and educating a broad set of stakeholders — employees, consumers, shareholders, community members — about the clear benefits, both economic and environmental, of a strong just transition strategy. With clear information and solid proof points, brands can help motivate the public to participate in this critical work.

Sustainability is one of the most critical issues of our time, and thankfully the pace of change in Australia is progressing. No one is doing corporate sustainability perfectly, and there is still a lot of room for learning and improvement, but companies prioritizing “done over perfect” will reap the rewards from a reputation and commercial perspective. With that in mind, let us focus on making small, incremental progress in the right direction and bring all our stakeholders with us on this journey to create positive change.

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August 29, 2022

Libby Woolnough
Group Head - Corporate Reputation & Brand Purpose, WE Communications Australia