Communicating sustainability with data visualisation

Data can help consumers understand why their personal actions are important, and to believe that they can help.

Sustainability suffers a personal relevance problem.

Despite being well-intentioned, about 80% of consumers will not actually shift share of wallet, in most of their spending categories, to sustainable goods and services (this is known as the ‘say-do gap’).

That’s not because they don’t want to shop sustainably. It’s because climate change is playing out at such a large scale, in human terms, that any individual can reasonably argue that their purchasing decisions don’t make a difference. Customers’ other competing interests, such as taste, cost, loyalty or brand preference take priority.

So, how can brands make sustainability seem sufficiently relevant to consumers, that it motivates them spend money on sustainable propositions?

There are various tools in the box but the one I’m discussing here is data visualization (data vis). I don’t sell data vis – so I hope I can be regarded as a neutral party on the matter. But I have spent years working in marcomms, and writing as a journalist and practitioner about ways to maximise customer engagement in many different industries. So I hope I can offer some useful perspective.

Data vis is less-often spoken of in B2C marketing, but modern consumers are increasingly accustomed to it – and actually, everyone is very familiar with data visualizations being used to explain sustainability. We’re familiar with the chart that shows global temperatures rising in line with climate emissions. We’re familiar with the graphic that puts our annual water consumption in terms of water-cooler refills – because we can’t conceive of 31,025 gallons without the aid of a familiar reference point. We remember these data visualisations from children’s television, or from school.

Brands could learn a lot from this approach.

Squeezed between growing regulatory oversight, increasing public pressure and, more recently, greater financial pressure – particularly in energy generation, manufacturing and employee wages – brands need to make a clear-cut case for consumers to invest in their sustainable initiatives.

For this to happen, brands need to help consumers understand why their personal actions are important, and to believe that they can help.

This article sets out how to proceed, explaining…

  1. why it’s so difficult to make sustainability appear personally relevant to individuals, and how this challenge can be overcome
  2. the problems with business’ existing sustainability reporting frameworks, how they can be improved, and how they can be repurposed as consumer-facing data vis
  3. the data sources that most large businesses can draw on, in order to issue more meaningful and informative claims.

Essentially, though, the message is this.

The existing toolkit for brand advertising is great for qualitative judgements such as taste and values, but of little use for sustainability, which is understood in terms of large numbers and long timescales, and ultimately rooted in facts.

Conveying complex ideas such as this is precisely what data vis is for.

Ultimately, if brands want to stimulate spending, rather than just conversation, they need to initiate an informed and meaningful dialogue with consumers about the work they’re doing to improve.

Tackling sustainability’s ‘personal relevance problem’

If you want to elicit an action from an audience – be they consumers, colleagues or investors – you have to achieve three things:

  1. make the message comprehensible and believable to most people
  2. show that the action will deliver a meaningful outcome
  3. make it personally relevant – so that the audience knows what they themselves stand to gain from it.

Sustainability claims often fall at the first hurdle, since incomprehensible and/or unbelievable statements are often to be found in a lot of brand messaging. A good example is Ryanair’s 2020 claim – to be the world’s ‘lowest emission airline’ – which was swiftly knocked down by the UK’s Advertising Standards Agency for misleading their customers.

The Guardian reported at the time, ‘the statistics it used failed to include many rival airlines and were based on data from 2011’. Clearly, brands cannot go around claiming to be the ‘lowest emissions’ in the same way they claim to be the best tasting, the most stylish, or the most fun. Sustainability is rooted in facts.

Those facts are made up of a lot of complicated data – on carbon emissions, water and land usage, energy consumption and waste generation – which play out at very large scale. The challenge is to show the customer’s investment impacts on these factors.

‘Ecolabels’ – icons which are intended to show the sustainability of a product – are intended to solve these problems. But though they earn a lot of PR exposure, as I’ll explain here, they are broadly ineffective.

The first ecolabels were icons indicating that a product was certified to a particular standard – such as the Fairtrade label, the Rainforest Alliance label, and so on. Recently, however, consumer goods brands in particular have begun to migrate to colour-coded labels which rate the product on a scale, such as this ‘Eco-score’ label launched in 2021, by a coalition of French brands.

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This is a data visualisation, of sorts (based on publicly available data provided by Open Food Facts), and the appeal of such a labelling system is understandable. Since the ‘nutrilabels’ which inspired them have already proven relatively successful. Consumers in many territories are now accustomed to using such traffic light-based graphics to see if the product contains an unhealthy amount of salt, fat or sugar.

But sustainability data is not comparable to nutritional data.

The first issue is one of scale, and the ability of a traffic-light system to show the consumer that they’re making a difference.

By not purchasing one Tesco BLT sandwich per day, the average UK adult brings their daily salt intake to a safe level. In contrast, the ‘carbon win’ from a person switching to the world’s most sustainable coffee is about 161kg carbon per year (2021 research published by UCL). That sounds like a high number, but when you compare it to the annual total needed to reach net zero by 2050, the consumer’s efforts become statistically negligible.

So: ecolabels appear personally irrelevant. Relative to ourselves, most of us know roughly how much of a given ingredient our body can tolerate. The idea that too many products labelled ‘red’ for salt content may eventually trigger a heart attack, is easy to understand and manage for the average person.

But we have no idea how much carbon is too much for one sandwich, or how many bags of coffee we can buy before the ice caps melt.

Data vis can, however, be managed creatively to address this problem.

The World Counts – a sustainability data organisation – estimates there are 4.3bn consumers in the world (correct as of February 2022). By that count, if every consumer bought the world’s most sustainable coffee for one year, that alone would earn the planet over 1/3 of one year’s target carbon reduction.

Of course, our planet couldn’t farm that much sustainable coffee in a year, but that’s not the point. The point is, the context provided by this comparison makes the purchase of this product appear important. It puts the customer action in the context of a specific, meaningful goal which is possible to understand, and helps the consumer perceive a personal gain by seeing their action as a global ‘team effort’, rather than in isolation. This importance of this is supported by the behavioural psychology around sustainable shopping which you can read about here.

Proponents may claim that ecolabels do provide useful context by allowing consumers to compare different basket items. Let’s test that theory.

Imagine you’re in a supermarket, you have fresh ground coffee on your shopping list, and you want to make a sustainable choice. Based on the Eco-score system, you would see a series of big, red, accusing E’s.

You’re understandably confused, so you decide to go and buy a chocolate bar while you think about it.

It looks as if your best bet is a ‘Double Chocolate Skinnybar’; the yellow ‘C’ score indicates it only has a ‘moderate environmental impact’. But you’d prefer to buy a familiar brand, so perhaps you plump for the D-rated Twix or Kit-Kat, over the Cadbury’s planet-killing Dairy Milk.

Are you really going to choose a ‘moderately harmful’ product over your personal favourite?

The truth is, as consumers, we make thousands of unsustainable choices every year. For carbon intensive products such as coffee, chocolate, animal products, avocados, electronic devices, fuel and clothing, we know that the only truly sustainable choice is not to buy them – but consumers broadly do not regard this as a realistic choice.

All ecolabels really do is make consumers feel bad about choices they’re going to make anyway. Clearly, ecolabels are not the answer.

Improvements in sustainability reporting

Of course, purchasing choices are not only made at product-level; brand preference also has a role to play. There’s the prospect of an easy win here, because corporations already report annually on their key emissions factors and various eco-initiatives.

Recent years have seen this information make its way into annual ‘impact reports’, sustainability microsites, and other similar comms, as a popular way for businesses to engage stakeholders around environmental issues.

These B2B comms could be vastly improved – and they could also be repurposed in order to engage consumers.

Impact reports and microsites borrow their format from corporate financial reporting: in particular, annual report & accounts documents. As such, the long copy is typically decorated with a lot of bold callout stats – which might look or sound impressive, but which suffer the deficiencies of credibility, relevance and meaningfulness that characterises many brands’ consumer-facing efforts.

Consider a fairly typical example: Mars’ 2020 sustainability scorecard (the most recent edition available). The claims appear positive at first glance, but the small print does not inspire confidence.

Why is the improvement in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions taken from a 2015 baseline, but the change in water usage measured against 2019? – and does anyone actually know if a -7.3% reduction in GHG is a good score? And however Mars ‘delivered’ 1.2bn healthy meals, it seems unlikely that many Mars employees showed up outside homes on an electric moped. So what does this actually mean?

In fairness to Mars, such publications are fairly formulaic, differing little from one business to another. But it’s still a missed opportunity. If this data was presented accurately and in the right way, it could be used to demonstrate that a commitment to a sustainable brand (as opposed to a sustainable product) is actually an effective way for the average consumer to combat climate change.

It’s equally important for brands to be transparent about where they’re not succeeding – or where they lack the data to be sure – since this helps to reassure customers that you’re working to address the shortfalls that inevitably exist in every business.

One brnad which has done this effectively in B2B contexts, is Sir Kensington’s, a US manufacturer of upmarket table sauces and a certified B Corp, now owned by Unilever. Sir Kensington’s The Food Fight: 2020 Integrity Report (free download) was released in mid-2021 as a summary of the brand’s previous year’s work around sustainability.

The most interesting spread in Sir Kensington’s impact report is not a data visualization, but a graphic showing the various sources of uncertainty as to the sustainability of its avocados. The brand openly admits that the supply chain for the crops it sources might be causing:

  • child labour
  • deforestation
  • loss of biodiversity

…and also possibly funnelling $150m a year to drug cartels.

Many businesses would regard the publication of such information as an act of self-harm. But actually, the ability and willingness to be transparent about your ESG efforts, and the willingness to invest in ways to communicate this, is a highly effective way to get taken seriously as a sustainable brand.

The alternative – not talking about things that you know that consumers and stakeholders alike are concerned about – is truly damaging.

There are glaring data gaps in most businesses’ sustainability ecosystems. Why, in 2022, is Mars’ most recently available scorecard the 2020 version? Nestlé’s data is even more out of date. It has actually produced quite a comprehensive impact report with some attractive data visualizations – but though it was published in 2020, the most recently published data is from 2018.

Perhaps the covid-19 pandemic led to some data gaps, and undermined some gains of the previous year. If so, brands should say so.

People are mostly forgiving when they’re given the opportunity and the information they need to understand when businesses don’t get it right. But leaving patchy, out-of-date data on public display is an unacceptable risk.

For some, it raises more questions than answers, ultimately undermining trust. For others, it simply looks like you don’t care – which is arguably worse. Both of those factors will undermine efforts to convince green consumers to shift share of wallet to your brand.

Selecting the right data for sustainability comms

In fairness to corporations, presenting such data to consumers is only easy if the data is readily to hand. But in reality, many corporate teams continue to face significant challenges in gaining access to every data point.

The ‘golden’ scenario – which is a long way off – is one in which brands’ sustainability reporting is automated, and the data readily available to every team to use and communicate as needed, so that it can be kept transparently on display to consumers and shareholders alike.

Hendrik Bartel, CEO of TruValue Labs, a company which helps businesses analyse this data, stated in The Economist last year that…

“there’s enough modern computer technology out there, enough computing power, and enough data to build on ESG disclosure in a scalable and objective way.”

…but he acknowledges that “sustainability reporting is still a very manual operation.”

Clearly, not every business is going to automate its carbon footprint overnight – but that difficulty must not distract from the salient opportunities to communicate the data that you can access, today, and to present it in a way that motivates the consumers who really care.

Preferably, that improvement should be on something which really matters to your consumers – and that will vary from consumer to consumer, and brand to brand.

For consumers who are most interested in ‘big’ climate factors such as carbon emissions, businesses’ existing disclosure systems are an obvious place to start. Most large businesses today report to one of a few disclosure systems – the largest share to CDP’s system; others to GRI or Trucost. Whichever they report to, businesses should commit to a single disclosure system in the long-term, which will provide a consistent stream of data to show meaningful improvement over time.

Other consumers may care more about specific ingredients.

This spread, also from The Food Fight, shows how much more the brand pays for certified-humane, free-range eggs – a sensible and direct way to explain the significant premium that Sir Kensington’s customers pay for its products, over established competitors’ products.

Rather than giving a raw figure, this visualisation aids understanding by putting the data in the context of some familiar reference points.

Sir Kensington’s could publish information such as this a lot more publicly – such as in its social media feeds, on its product labelling, and in prominent positions on its website. Other brands could do the same; were Sir Kensington’s focuses on its eggs (a key ingredient in its mayonnaise) Mars would focus on chocolate, or animal products for its Petcare division. For Nike it would be plastics and cotton.

Many consumers today – especially those most interested in sustainability – know that all these things are damaging whichever brand they buy them from. That makes these the perfect data sources to show you’re working towards meaningful change.

For product-specific information, you should be able to rely on your suppliers to give you the most accurate information. If that information lacking for a high-volume, high visibility product, you should switch suppliers.

Some of the data may come from within your business.

The Body Shop, a business well known for its ethical positioning, actually makes some interesting and meaningful claims on its sustainability microsite landing page, but they are hidden below the fold in paragraph copy.

Statements which show genuine action and progress – such as:

“In 2019, we relaunched our pioneering product refill scheme in two new concept stores. Now we’re rolling out refill stations and plan to have this in 500 stores globally by the end of 2022.”

…languish below the fold in paragraph copy. Meanwhile, the headline statement, that… “Social and environmental dimensions are woven into the fabric of the company itself”…is stakeholder-speak.

This is barely distinguished from any other business’s eco-mission statement, and unlikely to impress anyone seeking genuinely useful information about the sustainability of a business – consumers and stakeholders alike.

The marketing context for a sustainable business

If you think data vis could be helpful for your own business’s sustainability efforts, you should find help readily available. The inherent complexity of sustainability, combined with the fact it stokes passions, has made it a popular subject for data artists.

Gabrielle Merite is just one data vis artist who does a lot of great work in this space, and if you’re interested in doing this properly, you could do a lot worse than following her Instagram feed.

For enterprise-class solutions, Accurat, Clever Franke and Soak are well-regarded data vis agencies (which I’m not affiliated with) who have long histories of helping business achieve more with the their data.

Business who wish to evolve into sustainable brands must also tackle a range of internal challenges. That will partly entail culture change: educating internal teams, especially in marketing, about good and bad uses of data, and how to talk about sustainability credibly without the appearance of greenwashing.

It also entails making the right data readily available. Businesses’ sustainability and marketing teams should collaborate to create a single internal repository of data the businesses’ initiatives, successes and failures, which is kept up to date, and made readily available for teams to access and publish as needed, within appropriate guidelines.

Businesses also need to become better at managing their customer data. Marketing teams should know exactly which marketing segments are most likely to engage with which types of messaging. Sustainability communications should be tailored for those consumers who actively want to be better informed; a lighter touch is needed for other customers, or you may risk turning them off.

For many businesses, managing their existing customer data remains a key obstacle. To illustrate: a friend of mine works at a large, global IT firm which sells digital transformation as a service. For over two years, their own business has been having meetings about how to migrate to single, enterprise CRM, and still hasn’t successfully pulled it off.

Regardless of the obstacles: the need to stop struggling and start succeeding should not be understated.

Corporations have a sorry track record of manipulating data to tell the story they want to tell; amongst countless examples, nutrilabels have also been shown to be prone to abuse. Whether or not individual cases of greenwash are due to institutional data literacy (which many probably are), the optics are just as harmful your business.

In an age when consumer trust is arguably at an all-time low – at least in part because consumers’ access to information, and their understanding of complex information, is at an all-time high – poorly-explained statistics and unsubstantiated brand messaging can only worsen this problem.

And therein lies the competitive opportunity: for well-sourced, creatively presented information to increase engagement and credibility, amongst stakeholders and consumers alike, and give them good reasons to become more personally invested in your brand.

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