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Communication for sustainability: Blogging from Brazil

I write this post from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, fresh from speaking at the Global Alliance’s South American regional conference in Sao Paulo – an event that featured a compelling look at the critical role of communication in organizational sustainability.

There was a remarkable consistency of vision between Brazil’s leading corporate communicators and those of us from other nations. The recurring theme: How do we transform sustainabilityfrom a peripheral activity often driven by external factors – such as regulation or social pressure — to an imperative ‘embedded’ in an organization’s DNA and its strategy?

Rio prepares to host ‘Rio + 20′ –
marking two decades since the
historic Rio Earth Summit.

Notwithstanding its social, economic and environmental challenges, Brazil is a country on the rise, and its strong, smart association of corporate communicators reflects the importance of professional communication in ensuring that an economy’s growth is sustainble. The guest list that included a “who’s who” of communications executives from Brazil-based corporations – the likes of Petrobras, Itau, Natura, CPFL and others – as well as guest speakers from around the world.

Many senior Brazilian communicators spoke eloquently about their commitment to integrated reporting – the emerging global imperative for organizations to evolve from producing annual reports for shareholders on financial performance to preparing reports to all stakeholders integrating financial, social and environmental performance.

In thinking about sustainability, Brazil’s top corporate communicators are ahead of their peers in most other countries – even in other resource-based economies such as Canada. Why? One Rio-based executive told me he believes it’s the combination of rapid economic development, the environmental implications of extractive industries and a very limited social safety net. The global attention to this year’s 20th anniversary of the first Rio Earth Summit may also be a factor.

Regardless of the reason – and whether or not you believe Brazilian companies deliver on these promises – communicators need to pay close attention to sustainability. Here’s why:

  1. Stakeholders have rising expectations – and growing communication power. Paulo Marinho of Itau, one of Brazil’s largest banks, summarized the challenge neatly, observing that his company’s reputation lies in the hands of hundreds of thousands of shareholders, customers and employees – and that influencing that reputation is neither a fast nor easy process. And in the age when stakeholders are empowered through social networks, reputational threats can spread quickly.
  2. Responsibility matters, but sustainability matters more. The most advanced communicators have shifted their thinking from corporate social responsibility – the idea that organizations have a duty to ‘give back’ to society – to a vision of sustainability that suggests mutual benefit and shared value for the business and its stakeholders. Nestlé is an example. Izeusse Braza of Petrobras calls ‘embedded sustainability’ the ‘next source of competitive advantage,’ sharing surprising research that shows the oil company’s public reputation ranks right up there with those of makers of perfume and chocolate.
  3. Activists lobby Brazil’s president to veto environmental legislation deemed too friendly to the agricultural industries.
  4. In a purchasing decision, sustainability is often the tie-breaker. Former Global Alliance chair John Paluszek cited research that suggests that anywhere from six to nine percent of consumers make purchasing decisions based on their perceptions of a company’s social and environmental performance. This may seem small, but as he says: ‘what marketer wouldn’t kill for six-to-nine percent more market share?’

McKinsey research reports suggest that corporations’ biggest motivation for sustainability is to cut costs. Communicators  have a compelling opportunity to shift executive thinking to business-building terrain: using sustainability to strengthen a company’s relationships with its stakeholders, thus influencing its reputation and its value.

In any country – in any stage of development – that is a truly transformative opportunity.

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May 3rd, 2012 | Posted in Ideas | 0 Comments

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