How Social Media can Drive the Growth of Sustainability

Social media is a powerful force driving the growth of sustainabilitySocial media can be both a carrot and a stick. The new media serves the growth of sustainability as a powerful communications tool and as 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 largely about collaboration and community, which is entirely consistent with the values inherent in sustainability and CSR.

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.

Organizational messaging has been transformed by social media and the ramifications for reputation and brand impact are becoming increasingly obvious. An editorial by Julie Urlaub, the founder & managing director of Taiga Company, a sustainability social media consulting firm, reviews the power of new media..

Research reveals that consumers want to see results, not merely lofty aspirations. Urlaub cites the 2012 Cone Communications Corporate Social Return Trend Tracker, which shows that 84 percent of Americans believe that companies are responsible for communicating the results of their CSR commitments.

Americans now expect companies to have a social media presence, but sustainability initiatives appear to be suffering from poor communications. This is significant because organizations that undertake major sustainability initiatives can still fail if there is a discrepancy between what they are doing and the perception of stakeholders.

In addition to being environmentally sustainable, organizations must also be able to effectively communicate this effort. 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 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 are able to listen to and engage stakeholders. This is far superior to traditional push communications which disseminated information outward. In contrast to traditional communications, social media is a two way stream that generates useful feedback in addition to disseminating information.

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

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. The 2012 Sustainability Leadership Report 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 which involves more than just sharing information with passive recipients. Engaging stakeholders and listening to what they have to say are essential elements of effective communications. Social media is the perfect modality for such interactive dialogues.

According to Urlaub, social media is the ideal platform to fill the gap between consumer expectations and what companies are perceived to be delivering.

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

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 the development and implementation of 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 a wide variety of initiatives including product information related to the sourcing of materials, disposal instructions, and recycling.

Social media is a revolutionary force for pro-social change. With more than 500 million users, Facebook alone has more users than the population of any country in the world except China and India. Organizations of all sizes are incorporating social media into their marketing programs. According to Kiwano, 9 in 10 organizations use social media and thirty-one percent say social media plays a major role in public communications around their brand.

Social media is not only for communicating, it is also a powerful technology for market research.  Companies were harnessing the power of the social media to inform strategic decisions, and execute on the organization’s objectives, marketing plans, product roadmaps.  Social media can also be used internally for collaborative learning and/or 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 actually 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 the way we connect and communicate. The transformative power of social media was in evidence in the Arab Spring where it was a formidable force that proved capable of contributing to the toppling governments. Social media can even be used as a tool to 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 are using new media to force businesses to adopt more environmentally friendly practices.

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 is changing corporate behavior all around the world.

Environmental organizations have used social media to encourage more responsible corporate conduct on a number of fronts. In 2011, Greenpeace’s online efforts succeeded in forcing 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. A number of other major 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 have 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 stake holders. The key to using social media for the promotion of 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.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

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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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