How Social Media can Drive the Growth of Sustainability

Social media can be both a carrot and a stick. The new media serves the growth of sustainability as a powerful communications tool and a persuasive means of pushing for pro-social change. Social media gives organizations and individuals the ability to correspond with vast audiences. In addition to its tremendous reach, social media is primarily about collaboration and community, which is entirely consistent with the values inherent in sustainability and CSR.

Social Media, Sustainability, and Corporate Social Responsibility

For organizations involved in sustainability, social media affords a multitude of benefits, including increased consumer trust. While social media can benefit responsible organizations by enhancing their brand reputations, it is also a platform capable of exerting tremendous pressure on irresponsible businesses.

Social media has transformed organizational messaging, and the ramifications for reputation and brand impact are becoming increasingly apparent. Research reveals that consumers want to see results, not merely lofty aspirations. The World Economic Forum writes that consumers are increasingly driving corporate sustainability efforts in the developed and developing world alike.

Americans now assume that companies have a social media presence, but sustainability initiatives suffer from poor communication. This is significant because organizations undertaking major sustainability initiatives can still fail if there is a discrepancy between their actions and stakeholders’ perceptions.

Communicating CSR

In addition to being environmentally sustainable, organizations must be able to communicate this effort effectively. However, with 63 percent of consumers claiming they do not know where to look for information on CSR, communications are clearly a problem.

Communications can benefit from using social media as a platform for sustainability and CSR initiatives. New media has been a boon for socially responsible businesses and cause marketers. Businesses that use social media to communicate their sustainable practices are afforded priceless PR at a fraction of the cost of traditional media.

Social Media in Our Lives

Social media is sewn into the fabric of our lives, and what makes the “new” media so revolutionary is its capacity to interact. The primary advantage of new media over traditional media is that it gets stakeholders involved in discussions that can ultimately frame solutions.

Organizations that employ effective communications involving social media can listen to and engage stakeholders. This is far superior to traditional push communications, which disseminate information outward. In contrast to traditional communications, social media is a two-way stream that generates helpful feedback and disseminates information.

There is tremendous value in real-time feedback from employees, customers, and other stakeholders. The input provided through social media channels enables organizations to assess the strengths and weaknesses of their initiatives and, where necessary, make changes. Known as crowd-sourcing, the practice solicits ideas from a large group of people. One of the best examples of crowd-sourcing comes from GE’s Ecomagination Challenge.

Engaging With Consumers so They Become Followers

While some may fear the amplification of potentially negative feedback, the nature of the digital age is such that it is unavoidable. It, therefore, makes sense for organizations to be part of the discussion.

Consumers demand transparent and credible information, but there is a gulf between what consumers want and organizational realities. Research shows that consumer perception is determined by communication strategies and not just organizational efforts.

Some major companies saw declines in the perception of their sustainability stewardship despite increased efforts. The moral here is that engaging sustainability must include communications that involve more than just sharing information with passive recipients. Engaging stakeholders and listening to what they say are essential to effective communication. Social media is the perfect modality for such interactive dialogues.

Social media is the ideal platform to fill the gap between consumer expectations and what companies are perceived to be delivering.

“Social media, when executed successfully, can be a powerful vehicle to build sustainable business communications by engaging with stakeholders. With new tools and strategies changing how the business world communicates and exchanges information, social media is becoming the transparent, engaging, competitive advantage that business sustainability delivers,” said Julie Urlaub of the Taiga Company.

Because of the new media’s ability to facilitate dialogue, Urlaub predicts that social media used for CSR and sustainability will gain momentum in 2013. Part of these efforts involve developing and implementing responsible advertising using social media. Things like announcements about waste diversion and sustainable procurement are ideally suited for social media.

A lifecycle approach to communicating sustainability incorporates both education and branding. Companies can share information about various initiatives, including product information related to materials sourcing, disposal instructions, and recycling.

A Revolution for Positive Change

Social media is a revolutionary force for pro-social change. With more than 2 billion users, Facebook alone has more than the population of any country except China and India. Organizations of all sizes have incorporated social media into their marketing programs.

Social media is not only for communicating; it is also a powerful technology for market research. Companies harness the power of social media to inform strategic decisions and execute the organization’s objectives, marketing plans, and product roadmaps. Social media can also be used internally for collaborative learning, performance, and productivity improvement.

While social media is sometimes mistaken as the exclusive prerogative of major corporations, the truth is that it is a democratizing force in business that serves organizations of all sizes. Small and mid-sized companies may be better candidates for social media because they are more agile than larger companies.

Businesses are increasingly reckoning with the revolutionary power of social media. New media is impacting our lives and changing how we connect and communicate. The transformative power of social media was in evidence in the Arab Spring, where it was a formidable force that could contribute to governments’ toppling. Social media can even pressure governments to act on climate change.

While social media gives organizations a platform to discuss their initiatives and promote their ideas, it also extends the same opportunities to individuals. Social media has democratized information by giving everyone a voice and a platform. Individuals and environmental organizations use new media to force businesses to adopt more environmentally friendly practices.

Incorporating Climate Activism

Climate activists are up against the immense resources, including the fossil fuel industry and their powerful propaganda machines. While environmental groups cannot outspend the entrenched interests of the old energy economy, social media can level the playing field and democratize the discussion.

There are a plethora of environmental events that use the power of social media to gain global reach. Some of these events have garnered the support of millions of people in countries all around the world. The large number of environmental events that provide information and advocate strategies for action are made possible by new media.

Social media is a public relations vehicle with unparalleled reach, but it can also be used as a potent weapon against irresponsible businesses. The new media has succeeded in changing corporate behavior all around the world.

Environmental organizations have used social media to encourage more responsible corporate conduct on several fronts. In 2011, Greenpeace’s online efforts forced Nestle to adopt more sustainable business practices in Indonesia and Brazil. More recently, Greenpeace has used social media to engage consumers in a campaign that has successfully pressured a dozen leading brands in the apparel industry to adopt more sustainable practices. Several other prominent bands, including Cadbury, Unilever, Kraft, Burger King, and General Mills, have also been swayed by popular online initiatives.

The proliferation of increasingly powerful digital technologies has radically increased the reach and immediacy of social advocacy. Thanks to social media, climate activists are mobilizing people in ways that are transforming our cultures and our civilization.

Organizations now understand the revolutionary power of social media as a powerful tool that enhances interactive dialogues with stakeholders. The key to using social media to promote sustainability involves being transparent and genuine.

New media is also a powerful platform to encourage more responsible business practices. Whether used by organizations to engage in dialogues about sustainability initiatives or as a persuasive tool for change, social media is shaping the future.

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Richard Matthews
Richard Matthews
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, sustainable investor, and writer. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. He is also the author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, green investing, enviro-politics, and eco-economics.

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