What is the difference between a sustainable vs a regenerative approach?
In a nutshell, sustainability tends to focus on external actions and achieving targets. In business it is measured by metrics.
‘If we’re just sustainable, the risk is we’re standing still,’ says Nicky Sparshott, CEO of Unilever ANZ when I interviewed her for my book.
‘How do we make sure that we are constantly renewing, rejuvenating, refreshing and learning with new information – so that we are not just doing no harm?’
In contrast, being regenerative is a way of seeing the world – and often requires inner work. This is why it takes longer but is more likely to lead to lasting behavioural change.
It’s helpful to think of sustainability on a knowledge spectrum, where we are evolving from sustainable towards regenerative actions.
how to write about sustainability that cuts through.
- Always think about your audience first. Understand where your audience is really at… not where you want them to be.
- Think about where your audience sits on the ‘sustainability spectrum’. If you’re a sustainability expert, you are likely to be much further along. This means adjusting your messaging – and often your expectations.
- Be clear where you want to take people on the journey. Are you educating your audience? This requires clear, precise information. Are you wanting to present a business case on how sustainability is good for the bottom line? Use statistics.
- Harness stories to get people to care. We know that throwing a whole load of facts and figures at people doesn’t inspire action. Instead, stories are a way to draw people into a subject that can feel very abstract. (I’ll be doing a deep dive on Stories for Sustainability in an upcoming post.)
'The youth climate movement was a generational push for change that changed communication,' says Alex McIntosh, UK-based Creative Director at Create Sustain.
5. Find a moment that is relatable to your audience. Remember when Greta Thunberg first spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2019? That was a galvanising moment that triggered a worldwide movement.
Australian social researcher and author, Rebecca Huntley, described how she flicked on the television and saw, ‘Hundreds of Australian teenagers skipping school… and protesting in the streets about climate change… It was, at that moment as if those teenagers, their signs both funny and grave, were speaking to me.’ (From How to Talk About Climate Change in a Way That Makes a Difference.)
6. Paint a clear visual of the ‘flag on the hill’. It’s easier with a technical subject like sustainability to get lost in the weeds. How are you trying to motivate your audience? What vision are you presenting? Anchor your communication towards that outcome.
7. Avoid being abstract. Climate change and sustainability can seem far away in space and time: think of Antarctic ice melting or net zero targets by 2050.We are more likely to listen if we think that sustainability matters to our everyday lives.
8. Address ‘communication blockers’. Think ahead and be ready to address negative views on sustainability. It’s too expensive to change. We have other priorities (I hear this ALL the time with my clients.) There’s a cost of living crisis. Rather than argue against entrenched views, provide solutions to people’s genuine concerns and offer a roadmap to change.
A communication shift from information to involvement.
‘It’s not about trying to get people to understand that there’s a problem. It’s actually, how do you translate that into behaviour change. That involves thinking quite carefully about the triggers and levers that you can use to get people to act differently,’ says Alex McIntosh.
9. Find ways for your communication to change behaviour. This needs actionable steps. It needs people to care enough to do something differently. Often we need to address social norms. I.e. research consistently shows that if your neighbour puts solar panels on their roof, you are more likely to consider it. That is much more influential than just reading about how solar power can reduce your carbon footprint. As sustainability communicator your job is to find similar examples that are within the circle of influence of your audience.
10. Avoid being the expert: be the guide. So far we’ve covered content tips. But how you deliver this information: your tone of voice, the way you talk to your audience is also important. This loops back to point (1)… to meet people where they are at rather than talk down to them. Stay curious and you’ll be amazed at how much more likely your message is to land.
In writing this, I realise how I could have made this 20 or 30 tips! If you want to know more, tell me. What do you find most tricky in communicating sustainability? What would help you?
Hi, I’m Claire. Through my business Wordstruck we help companies bring their sustainability strategy to life. As the Founder of Regenerative Storytelling, we’re helping leaders do more for their people, their community and the planet. I publish regular content about storytelling, regenerative leadership and reframing how to address our rapidly heating world. To see more of my content, please sign up – and join the conversation by sharing a comment below.