How to use sustainability data to tell your brand story

By creating relevant sustainability data stories, a company can reach a wider audience, tailor messages to particular stakeholder groups and make sustainability an integral part of its brand identity. 

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Companies don't always leverage their corporate social responsibility data to tell compelling stories about their brand. Whether they fear being accused of "greenwashing," or missing the mark, they're losing an important opportunity.

While it takes courage and leadership to share sustainability stories, it can enable a company to distinguish itself from the competition. When handled right, sustainability data stories resonate with consumers and stakeholders by inspiring them to buy-in to the company's long-term vision.  

Why investors and institutions seek high quality sustainability data

Financial institutions are adapting to their investors' demand for sustainable investments. Data on company sustainability typically comes from voluntary environmental, social and governance (ESG) reporting. Companies may follow one or more sets of standards (such as the Global Reporting Initiative) in preparing their reports. As of 2017, the Governance and Accountability Institute reported that 85 percent of S&P 500 Index companies had published ESG reports. 

However, these reports are customized to suit the companies' independent views on how ESG criteria relate to the materiality of their business. This practice of self-disclosure without external verification results in data sets that are difficult to adequately compare. As a result, investors need improved standardization to reduce the level of data "noise" when comparing companies' performance. This is one of the drivers towards improved sustainability data. 

The UN Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs) offer a set of commonly accepted targets for sustainability efforts, which can be used to improve comparisons. However, the definitions of these goals remain broad. To approach this issue, the Global Partnership for Sustainability Data offers organizations a way to use their data to collaborate more effectively towards each of the SDGs. Data Collaboratives is another platform promoting improved collaboration across industry sectors. It seeks to spread awareness on how sustainability data collaboration can create shared public value.   

With the sustainability data they've collected, companies can strategically tap into their findings for branding opportunities and convey memorable messages that technical reports lack. Whether the data comes from self-reported sources or from big data sources, important sustainability branding stories can be identified, crafted and shared. By creating relevant sustainability data stories, a company can reach a wider audience, tailor messages to particular stakeholder groups and make sustainability an integral part of its brand identity. 

How to tell a sustainability story with data  

Facts or figures derived from data are meaningless without a story to frame them. The best data stories spark an emotional trigger before they delve into the logical details.

In the past, people often associated sustainability with negative emotions like fear, anger, loss, shame or blame. We've had lots of exposure in the media to environmental and social accidents, health risks and legal battles. This tragic media landscape does not lead to actionable messages, though. That's why we have to wield new narratives that trigger curiosity, wonder and delight. 

Sustainability branding narratives should highlight the serious attempts companies are making to tackle problems head on. Sustainability stories should emphasize the innovation, mobilization and ingenuity that leads to solutions. They should also highlight an appreciation and respect towards our planetary resources and people power with a long-term commitment to surviving our economic transition.   

Use these steps to develop a sustainability data branding story: 

Define your key takeaway

Perhaps you want to share an important sustainability goal you're working towards. Or maybe you want to engage your audience by setting them up to a shared challenge. Find what point you want to drive at and the data will follow. 

Collect data

Compile the relevant data from your own sources or from external sources. Make sure the data and message align perfectly. 

Target your audience  

No one knows your audience better than you. First, consider their level of expertise. Are they beginners on this topic or do they have in-depth knowledge? Provide the relevant level of detail in your story for your audience. 

Create a narrative

This crucial step in creating a data story makes it memorable. It gives your story a setting, a protagonist, conflict and resolution. Use these elements to amplify the positive emotions you hope to trigger. 

Visualize data

Give your data a vivid design that ideally amplifies the narrative arc you've created. Keep it simple and easy to scan or view. Consider designing for different formats including video, infographics and blog images. 

Publish, promote and test results

Next, disseminate your story through a variety of channels and measure its overall impact. Listen to the conversations that form around your sustainability story and use this information to sharpen your messages in the future. 

Make your sustainability data stories come to life

As long as you've created an authentic story that is backed by rigorous data analysis, you're likely going to attract positive feedback. The following tips are ways to fine-tune your message. 

Draw meaningful comparisons

Translate hectares into football fields. Find tactile, real world, familiar or surprising comparisons. 

Add context 

Familiarize your audience with the issue at stake by reminding them of accepted scientific facts or long-term historical trends that frame your data story. 

Share a human impact     

The drama of sustainability issues usually gets described in global proportions. But you'll want to pull your audience in by adding intimacy and connection. Draw upon universal themes like love, family, friendship, work and leisure, and make them resonate on a personal level.

Interpret your data

Describe your methodology, findings and approach. Remain transparent about your use of data and the reasoning behind your claims. 

Avoid inappropriate causation

As your Statistics 101 professor probably warned you, correlation is not causation. Qualify your claims, if needed. 

Cite your data sources

Leave the back door to your data open, so that your audience can get inspired and dig deeper.  

Inspiring storytelling examples with sustainability data

  • Conservation International's Nature is Speaking project portrays our natural resources through vivid, lush videography and compelling monologues spoken by well known celebrities. These stunning videos give viewers something to share with their friends online, yet they also lead you to the facts and figures that inform the viewer of the purpose behind the videos. The result is an actionable sustainability message that spreads awareness. 

  • An inspiring brand story is spelled out in this Now This video featuring Terracycle using tidbits of data, simple explanations on solutions and attractive insider views of the operation warehouse. Through engaging interviews and relatable narrative of collecting a few household waste objects, we learn the long and short of how hard-to-recycle materials can be recovered from the waste stream. In the process, a broader message that encourages consumers to wield their power to influence manufacturers and large corporations is shared. It also reveals how partnering with relevant media outlets can be an effective channel to share your work. 

  • Although the story is geared more towards attracting visitors than highlighting sustainability, I still want to share this well crafted data story by the US National Parks, Profiling the Parks. It succeeds at drawing the viewer in through excellent comparisons and attractive visualizations that all lead to the main message, which is that some of our greatest sightseeing attractions are held within these parks. A similar approach could be used with other map-based environmental data.

A few useful sustainability data tools and sources


ERICA ELLER IS A FREELANCE BLOGGER, CONTENT MARKETING WRITER AND EDITOR FOCUSING ON SUSTAINABILITY. 

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