As a communication consultant at Studio GOOD, Alf-Tobias Zahn develops communication plans for national and international non-governmental organisations whose primary focus is on global development co-operation. He is also passionate about sustainable fashion and published a German-language guide on the topic in 2018, called “Einfach anziehend”. We asked Alf-Tobias Zahn what matters most when communicating about sustainable initiatives and products, what role social media play in this area, and how to avoid the hazards of greenwashing.
Mr Zahn, how can good communication help to ensure that sustainable initiatives and products continue to gain ground and reach more people?
Good communication helps both when presenting good products and meaningful initiatives and when trying to explain complex networks of connections. In the sustainability sector, communication often involves more than simply describing a project or a product; the work that went into them matters, too, as do the values the organisation represents. As more people learn about such good examples and about the wider benefits that spring from a donation, product, or activity, they gain awareness as well as acceptance, for example, of higher prices for sustainable products. The challenge is to keep the message clear and simple when there are so many positive aspects that could be promoted.
Many of your clients are active in the sustainability sector. Is communications work different for this specific type of client than for others?
Good communication means the sender not only delivers a message but also receives one back. I have found that many sustainable organisations and brands are getting better at developing their own communities and engaging in real dialogue with them. By highlighting and promoting the benefits of sustainability in this way, they can motivate people to continue buying sustainable products, which are often more expensive than non-sustainable alternatives.
What matters most when communicating about sustainable products or initiatives?
Honest, authentic, and transparent communication. For many initiatives that do good, or brands that offer sustainable products, the consequences of poor communication can be much worse than for brands that do not value sustainability. This makes it especially important to ensure that credit is given for the good that they do, but it also means addressing mistakes candidly and transparently in order to regain trust within their own communities.
Is there anything to watch out for in order to avoid being accused of greenwashing?
There is no single definition of greenwashing, but the term is often used when a company or brand tries to enhance its image with claims, especially regarding sustainability, that do not correspond with reality. From a communications perspective, precise wording is key. Flowery language, which could give the impression that a product is better than it actually is, should be avoided, as social media users are usually quick to spot any possibility of deception.
Since you run CmiA’s social media accounts, why working with social media is so important for communication these days?
Messages, tweets, videos – the majority of people in Germany and throughout the world use these kinds of social media to communicate every day. They consume and produce content to entertain, educate, and inform one another, including the same target groups that CmiA wants to reach through its communications. These social media touch points are therefore relevant and important for CmiA as well.