How to talk about sustainability with anyone

Best practices for effective conversations
VP, CSR & Sustainability

Until recently, it was rare for anyone to ask retail executives about sustainability. For a while, only those at the world’s largest companies needed to discuss it. Times have changed, however, and executives can no longer avoid the elephant in the room. Consumers, employees, investors and regulators are asking about sustainability, and every retail executive needs to know how to talk about it.

The challenge is that almost every sustainability conversation includes people who define the concept differently or focus on distinct aspects of it. These discussions all too often resemble the mythological group of blind elders who, having never previously encountered an elephant, argue about what an elephant looks like.

In the parable, the blind elders unknowingly explore different parts of the elephant and struggle to accurately describe the creature, each arguing based on their own limited experience. Having touched a leg, one argues that an elephant is like the trunk of a smooth tree. Another declares it is instead like a leathery wall after only exploring the elephant’s side. Others insist that an elephant is like a giant snake (trunk), a rope (tail), a large fan (ear), or that elephants are made completely of ivory (tusk).

Many sustainability conversations progress in similar fashion. Participants insist that sustainability is about climate change, workers’ rights, recyclability, cost-savings, air pollution, plastics in the ocean, product ingredients, animal welfare, profitability, water use, impacts on local communities, efficiency, environmental justice or other aspects of the issue.

Like the blind elders, few people realize they are all describing the same creature.

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Further complicating things for retail executives, the most significant sustainability impacts do not occur from the sale of a product (e.g., the electricity needed to operate a store, or the fuel needed to ship products from a warehouse to a consumer). They occur while manufacturing products and from the mining, farming or production of the raw materials needed to make products. As a result, retailers are seeking suppliers that can manufacture more sustainable products in more sustainable ways from more sustainable materials.

Engaging suppliers around sustainability requires retail executives to understand the unique issues that exist within each supplier network. The most relevant sustainability metrics for grocery products are different than those for electronics, fashion, appliances, furniture, personal care, building materials or the thousands of other product categories that retailers sell.

In addition, individual consumers have their own unique perspectives on which sustainability topics are most important. Consumers demand more sustainable packaging, for example, because they are the ones that must recycle, reuse or throw it away. Retail executives, meanwhile, recognize from a broader sustainability perspective that the packaging might ultimately be a less significant sustainability concern than the product inside the packaging, how that product was made or how it made its way to the consumer.

Given the different kinds of sustainability conversations retail executives are having among themselves and with consumers, suppliers, employees, investors and regulators, the parable of the blind elders and the elephant might be too simple. Retail executives are not dealing with a single elephant. They are dealing with several herds of elephants that are not always moving in the same direction.

That means retail executives must continually refine their sustainability communication skills. Talking with individuals effectively inside and outside the organization requires a dedicated focus on a few key best practices.

Assume different perspectives: Never assume people have the same understanding of sustainability or the same sustainability priorities. Consumers see things differently, as do executives from across the company. Executives in financial, marketing, supply chain, operations, legal and ESG roles will each have unique and valuable perspectives.

Ask good questions: An important goal of every sustainability conversation is to understand the other person’s perspective. Some of the most powerful questions invite others to share how they define sustainability, which aspects of sustainability they prioritize and how they think their sustainability goals can be achieved most effectively.

Listen actively: Repeat what is being shared to ensure it is understood by everyone in the conversation and to demonstrate that everyone is being heard.

Clarify context: When everyone in a conversation is focused on their own piece of the sustainability elephant, it is helpful to step back and provide broader context. An issue might be critically important when narrowly focused on part of the elephant but less critical after exploring the entire elephant.

Learn from every conversation: Sustainability issues are constantly evolving as new issues emerge, new people enter the conversation and new technologies, or business models create new opportunities. Consider sustainability as a continual improvement process rather than a goal. There is always room for improvement.

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