Targeting Net Zero is only the start

| November 2, 2021

As the world heats up, standards for clear online corporate communication about climate change are still taking shape, writes Jonathan Holt.

For almost a year now, Bowen Craggs has been monitoring and assessing dedicated climate change-related sections whenever we find them on a company’s website – as part of recent tweaks to our benchmarking methodology to reflect evolving norms.

The number of companies giving climate change its own area within the sustainability section is growing steadily. But the style, positioning and substance of these sections vary considerably, sometimes even from one reporting cycle to the next on a single company’s online estate. In other words, standards and expectations are very much in flux.

One big factor here: a lot of companies’ 10-year sustainability targets ran their course in 2020, meaning it was time to introduce new goals for the coming decade or longer.

As such, many climate change pages currently focus on explaining what the company aims to do by 2030 or in some cases by 2040 or 2050. Needless to say, while this is an important bit of information, it is much easier to say you are going to do something a long time from now than to demonstrate actual progress.

As the 2021 corporate reporting cycle approaches – and with it the annual updates of many sustainability sections – here is how to cover climate change on corporate digital channels, and do it well. 

Make it easy to see

Stakeholders who are concerned about climate change will want to see that the companies they work for, invest in or do business with prioritise this issue, which is why burying this topic deep in the sustainability section is no longer a good idea.

Climate change affects people and communities as well as environments, so there is a strong case for positioning this topic at the highest level, alongside classic categories such as Environment, People and Society.

Many companies seem itchy to leave behind the ‘climate change’ label and opt for ‘net zero’ or a similar strategic phrase instead. Businesses always prefer to talk about solutions rather than problems, but tread carefully here. Where reputation matters are concerned, naming the issue at hand (and thus avoiding any ambiguity or the implication of spin) is almost always best.

Unilever’s ‘Climate action’ label is a nice compromise. It states the issue and also that the company is engaged in the solution. The fact that this item takes top billing in the Planet & Society section further signals that the company sees this as a priority.

Unilever climate action

Be distinct and specific

Many companies are reorienting their climate strategies around achieving ‘net zero’ emissions, and while this is good in the sense that collective action is needed to address this huge global challenge, there is a risk of everyone saying essentially the same thing.

Visitors will only remember what you say about climate change if it is distinct, compelling and specific.

BP’s ‘Getting to net zero’ landing page breaks down the company’s net zero ambition into five aims related to BP as a company (net zero operations, reducing methane, etc) and a further five relating to society as a whole (advocating, incentivising employees, etc). Nestlé talks about promoting regenerative agriculture and transitioning to renewable energy. The point is that each company and sector have particular opportunities and obstacles when it comes to being part of a global solution – and those should come across clearly.

Just as important is to position the climate change strategy within an understandable environmental, social and governance (ESG) framework or company purpose. SAP’s ‘Chasing Zero’ messaging is a catchy example: ‘Zero emissions. Zero waste. Zero inequality.’

Summarise progress

This point is twofold:

Firstly, substance matters. The climate change section or page should offer a thorough but easily digested overview of the company’s goals, plus a meaningful (usually numerical) indication of how the company will get there, how it is doing against these intentions, and some anecdotal examples of actions being taken today – such as via related links to relevant stories or news.

Secondly, formatting matters. A few years ago, a study in the US (may be behind a paywall) found that people were more likely to accept that global temperatures were rising if charts, rather than words, were used to make the case. The same is likely to be true when it comes to believing that a company is taking real steps to address rising temperatures.

Siemens makes good use of simple animations and graphic effects in a panel summarising progress to date on its Carbon Neutral page, for example.

Siemens progress to carbon neutral

Further down that page, Siemens presents six high-level FAQs about its climate change strategy in graphical form. Flip a panel to see the answer. For general audiences (as opposed to time-pressed specialists) this is an eye-catching alternative to basic text.

Offer deep-dive detail

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) professionals will want a lot more than a summary to help them gauge the seriousness of each company’s climate-related intentions and actions. As with all complex topics, it can be helpful to package information up in multiple ways in order to cater to different modes and visitor needs.

Rio Tinto augments its Climate Change page with a Climate Change Report page, which includes a link to an extensive PDF-based report (similar in length to a conventional CSR report, but climate focused) plus a set of interactive panels that drill down into the detail around the company’s goals and plans.

Rio Tinto climate change report

Eni also provides an annual PDF-based Carbon Neutrality report as part of a suite of CSR reporting documents, while Nestlé has created a special one-off Net Zero Roadmap PDF (more like a white paper than a report) to explain in detail how the company plans to get to net zero by 2050.

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Our Bowen Craggs Club membership has enabled us to benchmark all aspects of our digital presence against global all-sector best practice, share lessons and ideas with peers, and get both quick-win and longer term recommendations for improvement. Bowen Craggs is also providing us with valuable advice on our approach to online communications following the acquisition of G4S by Allied Universal.”
 

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