Sustainability and Social Media

Picture via Carrot Creative

I ran across an article today about modern corporations and their use of social media to communicate their sustainability efforts.  Apparently most businesses are already using social media in their PR, advertising, and marketing departments, yet are woefully behind the curve when it comes to discussing their Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability initiatives.

Some interesting numbers come from the article: while some 80% of companies use social media for the usual PR or marketing needs, 60% are not using it to talk about sustainability.  This is a total waste of an opportunity, and the article explains why:

“The philosophies of social media and sustainability have a great deal in common. Both are built on the pillars of transparency, ethics and innovation, and both can help secure a company’s bottom line. The most successful social-media sustainability communicators are all demonstrating how their companies can be useful to the greater community and they’re doing it in a way that allows true community participation and feedback.”

Part of the answer can be attributed to the limited importance of sustainability issues in these companies, but I believe its the required transparency and back-and-forth communication required by social media.

Most companies at this point are doing the minimal effort required to comply with governmental regulations.  Beyond giving lip service to the importance of “green” (I hate that word) issues of today, many businesses are sorely lacking in any honest, positive efforts towards sustainable goals.  Do they really want to explain over and over again why they’re dumping toxic chemicals, or manufacturing products designed to be immediately thrown away?

Would you want to talk about this?

Or what about when their sustainability social media efforts backfire? Take BP during the oil spill for example.  Because BP wasn’t being completely honest (read: lying like a rug) in their response to the spill, a semi-official looking Twitter account named BPGlobalPR began making fun of the real BP.  The result? BPGlobalPR has almost 185,000 followers.  The real BP has only 18,000.  Companies are just now realizing how important social media really is.

Beyond that, I think there’s a mindset needed at these companies that just isn’t used to honest feedback.  That’s where modern academic institutions can help shape our future.  Students today are generally well suited for sustainability in social media, and here’s why:

1. Familiarity with the format. Students today generally understand how to use Facebook and Twitter, what makes a video go viral, and how to talk civilly on the interwebs.  Most students have grown up with computers and the internet, and are simply comfortable using it.

2. Passion for Sustainability. There are more student-led initiatives for sustainability in today’s universities than there were even a few years ago.  Young, hopeful, optimistic people who grew up watching Captain Planet would like to do something to help the world.

3. The need for transparency. We’ve grown up being completely bombarded by commercials and advertising and we’re sick of it.  Many students today are simply looking for an honest conversation from companies today instead of a traditional, top-down message.

Think I’ve missed something? Let me know!


4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Brian Behle on November 22, 2010 at 6:11 pm

    I love this thought pattern, thanks. The thing I think needs to be said in media for all the big ‘polluters’ or what you would call them is this:
    Starting point. We know our record is pretty horrendous and we are doing this….

    I think its really hard for companies with a dodgy background to start hyping the good things they are doing because they have done so many bad things in the past. This opens them up to criticism. Its kind of like being a white male….’ I know what has gotten me here is this…. and I am doing this. Putting yourself out there makes you own the past, which can be painful, but worth it.

    As far as BP, they get what they deserve.


  2. Awesome. Great post Mr. Salkin. I agree that most companies are fearful of really laying it out on the line re: sustainability awareness thru social media platforms. My assumption is that corporate PR managers might be wary of brand highjacking a la BP, Cooks Source, etc to fully participate in anything other than basic brand building. Guess it’s up to us to make a diff.




  3. Posted by jpe on November 22, 2010 at 7:55 pm

    Alex, I think the belief is still that they can have their transparency without having their transparency. They want to have “story” of transparency without really letting people in on how the company does work. Effective use of the social web relies on other people helping you tell your story, so I guess once again the ignorance or the savvyness of individuals will decide whether a fake social media identity flourishes or fails. I think you can find examples of both failure and success with less than honest online presences.


  4. What you are discussing here (imho) is the raison d’etre for my consulting biz: – as you say, sustainability and social media are VERY sympatico, but most corporate interests still try to use social media as a mere appendage of their publicity efforts. As you point out, Social Media is antithetical to controlled broadcasts / branding campaigns.

    Keep up the good work (i.e. sharing your insightful thinking on this “sustainability stuff”.)



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