© Tobias Tanzya
It’s all about Credibility: Navigating the Challenges of Sustainability Communication
ESG reporting, taxonomy, and circular economy are just a few buzzwords shaping the current discourse on sustainability. How can corporate communication keep up and do justice to legal, social, and business developments?
Alexander Bilgeri (BMW Group), Daniela Bohlinger (BMW Group), Professor Christian Hoffmann (University of Leipzig), Professor Ulrike Röttger (University of Münster), and Dr. Kai Rolker (Clariant) discussed the premises of sustainability and their significance for corporate communications during the Leadership Forum 2023 in Munich.
Sustainability @ BMW Group
BMW is undergoing its most significant transformation in over a century. The company has shifted its focus toward a more sustainable development – a development that can be observed not only in the automotive industry. With Daniela Bohlinger, responsible for Strategy Sustainability at the Innovation Management of BMW Group, and Alexander Bilgeri, Vice President Communications, we discussed sustainability targets, the importance of innovation and sustainable design, and the role of corporate communications.
Sustainability at BMW focuses on the entire value chain – encompassing aspects of circularity, CO2 reduction targets, e-mobility, environmental standards, and social sustainability. “Sustainability is so much more than planting trees,” says Bilgeri. He emphasizes the importance of embedding the concept of sustainability in every department. “We need to critically assess all business activities and change the things we can influence, rather than merely give symbolic gestures.” Corporate Citizenship is also important, but that’s not the understanding of sustainability pursued by BMW.
Daniela Bohlinger recently exchanged her old job in the design team for a new sustainability strategy role in innovation management because she realized that sustainability in processes needs to be addressed further upstream. “We need to look 20 to 35 years ahead instead of just seven years.” From sourcing materials to resource-efficient production to re-using old components, establishing a circular economy plays a key role and needs to be planned long ahead.
Daniela Bohlinger, BMW Group
“The goal for sustainability is to become an inherent part of all activities and products. It should no longer require visible labels or stamps like ‘I am recycled‘.”
Ensuring internal and external acceptance for sustainability
Bilgeri was not the only CCO who criticized that the term sustainability has been used excessively, resulting in skepticism and mistrust among external and internal stakeholders. Corporate communications need to create a common understanding to gain acceptance. Bilgeri points out that as a car manufacturer, BMW will never be completely environmentally friendly as it must also meet economic targets. But it can minimize its negative impact and ensure that societal acceptance surpasses adverse effects. That’s why the company’s commitment to sustainability encompasses not only ecological measures but also social sustainability standards for employees and a broader contribution to societal stability.
Alexander Bilgeri, BMW Group
“There are innovations without sustainability, but there is no sustainability without innovation. Innovations, in turn, can generate competitive advantages. If you can quantify the competitive advantage, you can reach broad internal support.”
ESG reports are not the right channel for storytelling
Another aspect of sustainability is sustainability reports, also referred to as ESG reporting (Environmental – Social – Governance). With the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD), the European Commission has enforced new sustainability reporting regulations in 2023.
Kai Rolker, Head of Group Communications at Clariant, and Christian Hoffmann, Professor of Communication Management at the University of Leipzig, underlined the inflationary use of the word sustainability in the context of reporting.
Rolker is skeptical of using ESG reports to set the agenda for sustainability topics. Instead, he suggested that it would be better to return to a simpler form of reporting and concentrate on the facts and figures. Information in these reports can be too complex to set an adequate backdrop for sustainability stories.
Hoffmann, recommended that communication should take ownership of the reporting process. By doing so, communication professionals can play a crucial role in shaping the narrative and effectively conveying important messages.
Communicating sustainability – a question of credibility
It’s not only the omnipresence of the sustainability issue that can annoy people. In recent years, numerous Greenwashing incidents in Germany have led to doubts about the credibility of sustainability measures and goals, as Ulrike Roettger, Professor for Public Relations Research at the University of Muenster, explained. “Simply increasing communication does not solve the problem, as credibility is attributed to an entity rather than something that can be achieved solely through communication.”
According to Roettger, credible sustainability communication is like a puzzle composed of numerous pieces. It is crucial for companies to ensure that their values, actions, and communication regarding sustainability align consistently. Additionally, the Chief Communication Officers should be aware that a lack of sustainability in communication can make the department vulnerable to criticism – e.g., by journalists or NGOs.
To effectively communicate sustainability, social media platforms offer immense potential, especially when external voices report on a company. When there is a strong alignment between influencers and a company’s values and actions, these influencers enjoy higher credibility than the company itself. Leveraging this fit can enhance the overall credibility of sustainability communication efforts.
For Alexander Bilgeri (BMW), credible communication needs to be open and authentic. “Communication cannot be fully transparent, but we need to talk openly about failures,” he said.
All participants agreed that building credibility in sustainability communication requires a holistic approach. It involves aligning values, actions, and communication, as well as ensuring the sustainability of communication practices. And ultimately: Adopting an integrated approach to sustainability communication has one major advantage: It brings together all departments involved, breaks down silos, and promotes collaboration within the company.