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1.3.1 Communication Challenges Organizations Face

Organizations face multiple challenges (e.g., political disagreements as to what should be done internally or communicated externally; managing the potential distrust of key stakeholders) in terms of their sustainability-related messages. Here, I focus on only two: fear of speaking out and messages that are not processed.

1.3.1.1 Fear of Speaking Out

Many organizational leaders hesitate to communicate about their sustainabilityrelated initiatives and accomplishments fearing a backlash if stakeholders perceive their motives are self-serving or think the organization is green-washing. Others worry that the promotion of sustainability will only invite increased stakeholder scrutiny and a cycle of rising expectations over time (Peloza et al. 2012). For years before Walmart spokespeople began speaking publically about their sustainability initiatives, I'd heard about various initiatives from employees at their Bentonville, AR, office. Walmart remained publically silent due to their concerns over the potential charge of green-washing or backlash from activists. Yet, Auden Schendler, Vice President of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company, urges leaders to speak out saying:

Corporations are universally fearful of talking about their environmental work, whether its policy or operational greening. They are scared because they don't want to be called hypocrites. They want to do their work and be humble and not crow about it. But my advice to those people is that we are not going to solve the problem of climate change if you are quiet. All you have to be is honest when you talk about whatever you are doing. If you are working on policy, you can say, 'we are working on policy, we have a lot to do cleaning up our own house but we think this is really important'. If you are working on changing light bulbs or operational greening, you can say 'we have done this. There is a long way to go and we understand that but this is where we are starting and we are going to do more'. Many corporations, if they communicate to the public, will roll out what they did as if they think they are saving the world and that is a mistake. It should simply be, 'hey look, we want you to know about what we are doing, we think this makes sense. We have a long way to go and this is the first step.'

Certainly, speaking out can be difficult. Auden spoke with me about his experience with transparency saying:

Probably the biggest communication issue we had in our history was my belief that we need to be a corporation trying to pursue sustainability.. .. radically transparent and honest and not focused on spin or marketing. And our management for a while.. . did not get that.. .. It [transparency] was seen as subversive instead of open.

About a year after Auden and his top management had a conflict over his radical transparency, Auden found a Fast Company magazine article on his desk describing how Patagonia was pushing for transparency in their product line, along with a note from his CEO which said, “Auden, should we be more, quote, transparent?” He described going into his CEO's office angry because this had been what he had talked about. “When I walked in there waving the article, he was kicked back in his chair laughing, meaning he got it.” But sustainability coordinators and champions need to be prepared to educate their management team about open and transparent communication. During our interview, Auden, whose background is as a writer, shared with me his philosophy on communication:

When I came into this job I decided it was not enough to do the work. We had to talk about the work and the reason we wanted to talk about the work was we wanted to use Aspen as a stage to share our stories with the world and drive change in the business world and beyond. And so the work we have done has always been coupled with a really aggressive level of communication. It has taken multiple forms. One is talking to the press, even soliciting stories from the press. It has been applying for awards. It has been writing essays and papers across the spectrum of media. The public speaking is another piece of that. Reaching whoever we can: business, Wall Street groups, and corporations with the message. Groups like BICEP and POW are focused on furthering that message and getting a focus from the business community and others like athletes or government on policy change.

 
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