Credibility: how do we know if we have it?By Kathryn Sheridan, CEO and Founder of Sustainability Consult - 8th May 2019
Kathryn Sheridan, CEO and Founder of Sustainability Consult, highlights the importance of building trust and credibility when discussing a chemical company's sustainability claims.
Consumers have high expectations around the sustainability of the products they buy, even if they might not have much knowledge of the ingredients that go into them. Only a very small fraction of consumers has the technical expertise combined with the necessary motivation to truly study and understand ingredient labels. On products like paints or household cleaning supplies, the label does not even show the ingredients. So at the end of the day, it comes down to the trust the consumer feels for the brand and the retailer selling the product.
We want to buy from brands we feel can trust. Trust them to do the right thing, to be a responsible business and to use the safest and most sustainable ingredients available. And yet, for those of us working in and with industry, making decisions on sustainability is rarely as straightforward as some may believe.
At Sustainability Consult, we’ve spent the last ten years working across the chemical and plastics industry to raise our clients’ visibility and credibility through sustainability communications. We’ve seen time and time again that to build trust, we need to first build credibility. That means genuine commitment and communications – and no greenwashing.
According to a 2018 study by public affairs consultancy Edelman,1 the chemical sector is the third most targeted sector by activists and has a long way to go to gain trust. Building trust between business and its customers is hard and, as the saying goes, “Trust takes years to build, seconds to break and forever to repair”.
Sustainability can be complicated
I’ve spent nearly two decades working in sustainability so I have seen first-hand how complex it can be at times. Imagine a cosmetics company that decides to shift an ingredient from petroleum-based to bio-based in a bid to be more sustainable. This sounds like something consumers and other stakeholders would appreciate. But then a life cycle assessment (LCA) might show this could disrupt biodiversity through land use change, whilst potentially generating more greenhouse gases. What at first seems to be “more sustainable” may not always be the most obvious option. As well as weighing up a wide range of sustainability factors, careful messaging and communications are also needed.
Imagine the potential reputation damage that can be done to a company which is positioned as a leader in sustainability if it is subsequently found to have practices which are less than decent. The consumer’s trust would be broken which would severely affect their credibility and market position.
New tool looks at the company behind the claims
In response to these challenges, we have launched the Credibility Audit to expose vulnerabilities in a company’s reputation – and also to highlight what’s going well.
A standardized stress test, the Audit looks at the company behind the claims as well as the claims themselves by analysing a company’s internal and external communications, its sustainability policies and relevant business practices. The Audit can be done on new products before they are launched, to check the credibility of existing services or to give an overview of the company as a whole.
The Credibility Audit provides companies with a score and detailed recommendations on how to improve, including how to communicate transparently on any challenges. Essentially a risk management tool, the Audit helps prevent future reputational and financial losses by identifying problematic areas which could result in future credibility issues. It also helps companies communicate more clearly and transparently with their external stakeholders.
Strengthening credibility in the chemicals sector
The Credibility Audit helps demonstrate to a company’s employees and other stakeholders that they are as credible as they claim or that there is work to do. This helps build trust within and outside the company. Knowing that a company’s actions are in line with its corporate values is extremely important to employees, especially to younger generations.
The Audit supports both sustainability and communications directors by demonstrating to management what is needed to achieve a more credible and visible business. The results also serve to create a discussion between management and shareholders to prioritize the investments and actions that are needed.
As the chemical sector continues to adapt to new regulations while navigating its way through major societal challenges like climate change, the Credibility Audit is an essential tool for companies who fear their claims might not stand up to scrutiny, or for those seeking a credible, independent confirmation that they do. Challenging and validating the company behind the claims will strengthen and improve the company’s reputation – and sales – in the long run.
- Edelman. Trust Barometer 2018 Attitudes Towards Energy in a Polarized World Global Energy Report. Available at: www.slideshare.net/EdelmanInsights/2018-edelman-trust-barometer-attitudes-toward-energy-in-a-polarized-world.
Kathryn Sheridan, CEO and Founder of Sustainability Consult, Greenbizz, Dieudonné Lefèvrestraat 17, 1020 Brussel, Belgium
For further information about Sustainbilty Consult's Credibility Audit, click here for a Q&A.