When we talk about carbon footprints, we tend to convert boring numbers into exciting equivalents. The number of elephants tends to be the comparable of choice…everything from weight of waste to tonnes of carbon, the elephant is the thing that we seem to relate to. It’s the sustainability world’s equivalent to ‘the size of a football pitch’, I guess.

It is indicative of the challenges that all sustainability folk have – communicating to a lay audience in a way which will ensure you stay on the agenda at the next annual company meeting. Communication and engagement are two terms which are banded about frivolously to the point of exhaustion. But they are both different and equally important.

Communication is a one-way conveyance of information – a bright poster, a catchy strapline, a newsletter. One party telling another party something they really need to know, in the hope that at least part of it will sink in. Engagement, despite being a lacklustre term, is in fact the more interesting of the two. It’s the reciprocal exchange of information and ideas with the objective of reaching a common understanding towards a common goal.

Engagement works for sustainability because the people whose opinions, behaviours and attitudes you are trying to change have an opportunity to participate. This in turn makes them feel like they have ownership and control over their decisions to change and, therefore, will do what you want them to do whilst feeling happy to do it!

People want to hear things that are new and interesting, presented in ways which grab their already over-stimulated attention. They want reasons for doing the things that might take them out of their way. Bringing together communications and engagement to present compelling arguments and invite participation in discussion is the product of a successful sustainability programme.

But it is much easier typed in a blog than done. This is where the elephants play a crucial role. “Why should I recycle my waste?”, “Because of all the elephants going to landfill!”, “I see. In that case, show me the recycle bin”.

Monica Niermann, Head of Certification, monica.niermann@planetfirst.co.uk