Trewin Restorick argues story-telling offers an effective means of winning over green business sceptics
This time each year my mum embarks on the process of making the family Christmas cake. It is an amazing creation only ruined in my opinion by the seemingly pointless layer of marzipan that separates the icing at the top from the mass of fruitcake below.
The problematic marzipan layer has been the hidden theme of two Green Innovation Breakfasts we held recently. Both breakfasts featured presentations by women who have created successful businesses and who have embedded sustainability into the companies. They are indicative of a growing band of leaders who ‘get' the sustainability agenda realising it is a necessity not a luxury if their business is to thrive and grow.
Talk to any of these leaders and they will describe an influx of bright young things who increasingly understand the business imperative to act more sustainably and are eager to create change. Ask them why that change isn't happening faster and they will describe a 'marzipan' layer of managers facing the everyday challenges of business life and for whom the sustainability debate is an irritating irrelevance far removed from daily targets and routines.
We have seen this layer in action many times. For example, a company with highly ambitious sustainability targets asked us to talk to one of their advertising agencies about encouraging customers to use their products more sustainably. It was clear at the outset we were talking two different languages. The agency was driven by a need to shift product. The wider debate about how customers actually used the product was deemed irrelevant and not worthy of their consideration.
The question that many organisations are now grappling with is how do you make the business case for sustainability to managers and agencies who currently see it as a pointless distraction?
The green innovation breakfasts gave some interesting pointers reinforced by evidence we have seen in other companies. The most important seems to be the need to create a strong narrative and story. It is no coincidence that two of the companies who are viewed as sustainability leaders are Marks and Spencer and Unilever. Both have created on-going and simple storylines for their strategies. These stories bring the strategy to life and make it understandable to employees, suppliers and customers.
Marks and Spencer have taken the narrative approach deep into the company by requiring all of their 2.7 billion individual products to have a 'Plan A' story. It is this requirement that led the lingerie department to come up with the first ever carbon neutral bra - a concept that generated huge amounts of free media coverage resulting in one ethical bra being sold every six minutes.
Simone Hindmarch, the co-founder of Commercial Group has also realised the importance of narrative. She describes her personal transformation which started with seeing An Inconvenient Truth and translated into a sustainability story for her company.
There are two clever things about the narrative Simone has created. The first is she has linked it directly to sales ambitions. The company actively seeks out potential customers from businesses who share their sustainability values asking: ‘Why would you want to work with people who don't have similar beliefs? The second is that Simone has realised the importance of keeping the stories fresh and positive, regularly changing the challenges that she sets her team.
The narratives can be of varying degrees of complexity just as long as they are positive, relevant to the business and have clear targets. Laura Tenison the founder of maternity retailer JoJo Maman Bébé's narrative is based around the principle of ‘waste not, want not' embedded into her as a child. She describes how the company started by distributing clothing in reusable boxes mainly to save money. This initial frugality is now part of the culture of the business and used to drive many innovations such as the creation of baby clothing using recycled plastic fibres.
Another common feature of the stories is that employees know that they are important and will stick. In these companies the storyline is consistently communicated by the CEO. Employees know that if they follow the ambitions of the story they will be rewarded. In some companies this reward is being made through payment of bonuses in others it is through access to decision-makers.
The stories also have an on-going narrative. Reference is constantly made to progress against the ambitions and there is often a refreshing air of humility and honesty when things don't quite go as scripted.
The narrative approach makes it easier for all sections of the company to understand and participate in the sustainability debate - even the marzipan layer. Allowing managers to create their own chapters in the story gives them the scope to define their own solutions and to feel that they are helping deliver a wider vision.
Using narrative is a subtly different approach to that adopted by most companies, who usually create sustainability statements comprising of a raft of reduction targets, with little explanation of the thinking behind it. A ‘real' story does wonders to personalize a company's sustainability ambitions, making it more likely to actively engage all parts of the business - even the hardest to reach.
Trewin Restorick is the chief executive of environmental advisory body Global Action Plan.
This article first appeared at his blog Trewin Says