One of the hardest lessons learned in taking on sustainability at your business is how NOT to greenwash. As we heard from GoGreen Austin Speaker Valerie Davis a few months back, sometimes it’s not a conscious action—many times offenses occur due to lack of knowledge. Today we take the conversation on talking responsibly about sustainability even deeper with Parsons PR Founder/President and GoGreen Seattle speaker, Joanie Parsons. She gives us key insights on how to keep it real with our communications while actively working towards the triple bottom line.
GoGreen: What makes green communications different than regular communications? Why is it harder to get right?
Joanie Parsons: The story is constantly changing – green is a fast evolving arena with new technologies, methodologies and certifications every day, as well as an ever-expanding conversation about what green is and can be. You also always have to ask yourself, “How do I communicate the green story in a way that is relevant and that resonates with people’s own lives?” It’s about benefits, not features.
GG: What called you to make this your living? And to integrate sustainable practices so deeply into your own business?
JP: Communications has always been my passion. For nearly 20 years, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed bringing great companies and stories to light. That said, about eight years ago, I decided to change the focus of the company. I had a strong roster of clients and a solid reputation. It was no longer satisfying to simply make money doing work I was good at, I wanted to do work with extraordinary clients who were making a difference in the world.,
From a very young age I have felt a deep connection and affinity for the earth and found myself wanting nothing more than to have my company be a change agent for the environment. Green building was an emerging trend that resonated with me, and I decided that I would put all my energies toward working with clients with a sustainable focus, whether in green building, green products, green retail, clean tech smart grid, etc..
A natural progression from there was to transform my own operations to be as green as possible, and into triple bottom line and beyond. You absolutely have to live green in order to understand and communicate green to the world.
GG: What were the first initiatives you took on?
JP: We invested a huge amount of time to learn everything possible about the technologies, practices and products to make us leaders in the field of sustainability.
We offered our services pro bono to green events and organizations to gain credibility and build relationships. Since then we have enjoyed a client roster of some of the West’s most cutting edge clients.
GG: Where is Parsons now?
JP: We are continuing to evolve as a triple-bottom-line company. We were one of the first BCorporations in the country and continue to challenge ourselves daily to look at our business from the inside out. That’s everything from our purchasing practices to actively seeking out clients that are the most forward-thinking, risk-taking, and committed to a better future so we can support the boldest visions out there.
GG: What’s the key to avoiding greenwashing, while still leveraging the sustainable success a company may have had?
JP: How to avoid greenwashing? You have to ask a lot of questions, do a lot of research and due diligence on companies before we both sign on the dotted line. Our reputation is everything. If we compromise, or represent a company that is indeed greenwashing, it could cause irreparable damage to our brand. We have worked very hard to earn our reputation for representing the best of the best. We help our clients navigate the complexities that a company must face when it goes down the path of being a sustainable company, and help them understand the vital importance of transparency and integrity.
GG: When can a company legitimately start talking about their green initiatives? Do you have to be deeply green before it’s OK to promote the fact that you’re working on these things?
JP: Today, you have to have some kind of green initiatives in place – it’s simply expected that most companies will have taken some measures to be more environmentally responsible. We believe it’s okay to say that a company is starting and looking to evolve its commitment. It’s all about transparency.
GG: What is one of the most troubling trends you see in how companies talk about sustainability today?
JP: Companies jumping on the green bandwagon and not substantiating their claims. You have to walk the talk. You also have to be prepared to be called out for anything you’re not already doing and have a response.
GG: What are some things to keep in mind—best practices—when actively talking about your business’ sustainable initiatives?
JP: It’s important to stay on top of what forward-thinking, sustainably minded companies are doing for their sustainability initiatives. There are always new ideas out there, and ones that will become tomorrow’s expected elements. You cannot become complacent and say, “Well, we already have sustainability initiatives in place.”
GG: What kinds of things should companies be prepared to defend in speaking out about their sustainable efforts? How should they approach this if called out about something?
JP: They should be prepared to provide proof – a carbon footprint, formal sustainability goals and measurable successes, a CSR report, etc. Something that shows that they’re not all talk but that they set benchmarks and then measure against them regularly. Again, companies need to stay on top of this rapidly evolving conversation so that their efforts do not become calcified into some outmoded idea of green practices but instead they are continually raising the bar for themselves.
GG: Who do you think has done a great job in talking about their sustainable initiatives without greenwashing or hype? Why?
JP: Patagonia – they did it before it was hip to be green. They did it because it was the right thing to do. Their president, Yvon Chouinard, said in a recent interview, “This company is an experiment.” What he means is that it’s business conducted in a new, radical way, on purpose, to prove Chouinard’s intention that “business can make a profit without losing its soul.” Imagine that! It’s so inspiring to see them do business on their terms – uncompromising with regard to environmental impact and with regard to their values around balance. Focus on creating high quality stuff in a responsible way, and preserve each employee’s quality of life along the way – and the money will follow.
GG: If you could offer just a single piece of advice to our readers about successfully navigating green communications, what would it be? The most important thing to always keep in mind, in your opinion?
JP: Yesterday’s green is not tomorrow’s green. Be a part of the evolving conversation. Keep your eyes on the horizon, keep your ears to the ground (well not at the same exact timeJ) and stay informed.
Joanie Parsons is founder and President of Parsons Public Relations and a featured speaker at GoGreen Seattle 2011, April 20th at the Convention Center. For more information and to register to see Joanie at GoGreen Seattle, visit: http://seattle.gogreenconference.net/registration.
To learn more about Joanie and Parsons PR, visit: http://www.parsonspr.com
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