We met up with Marjolein Baghuis, consultant at The Terrace, an ‘agency for positive change’. Baghuis works on communicating positive change an organisation has implemented, such as work with local communities and sustainability. She has worked for clients like Tony’s Chocolonely, Unilever and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Over cups of tea and pepernoten, we discuss greenwashing, the Global Reporting Initiative and movement brands, all of which are important in the context of not only communicating, but also creating positive change.
Global Reporting Initiative
Before starting as a consultant at The Terrace, Marjolein Baghuis worked at an NGO called the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). This is an international NGO committed to creating a common-ground on how to report on sustainability performance.
“Many companies are eager to publish a nice report, but confused about what they should put in it. For example, I came across a bank with a sustainability report that only covered the amount of paper and water they used at their offices. But, as a bank, their most important impact is where they invest their money! They were not necessarily trying to greenwash, they just didn’t get it.”
GRI has created some generic and industry-specific reporting standards, to make it easier to focus on what to change, and how to communicate it. When I ask about if companies try to use sustainability consultants like herself to greenwash their brand, she hesitates.
“Most are really committed to change. But, yes, of course there are companies which do some good work, and then focus all their communication on those specific cases. But, if someone approaches us with a request for a communication plan, we focus on their sustainability strategy first, what they are actively working on and what they are not yet working on. And then we work with them and their stakeholders to improve it.”
A sword and a shield
Marjolein explained that Unilever, one of the biggest companies in the world, differentiates the integration of sustainability work in their brand communications as a sword and a shield. “A sword is a story that you take towards your consumers, and a shield is what you are working on and share more selectively with certain groups.”
She explains how the Lipton team at Unilever, which is one of the biggest manufacturers and buyers of tea leaves, needed to make the trade-off on what to share with consumers. On the one hand, they were supporting and protecting the workers and their communities, by installing solar panels and improving tools used for plucking the tea leaves. On the other hand, their sustainability team had managed to reduce their use of pesticides significantly.
“The sustainability team was doing great work. But, the problem is nobody knows that there are pesticides involved in producing tea. There was a risk that if we put that story on a package, people would react negatively, and only think of the pesticides Unilever were still using. So instead, the community work became the sword, and the reduction of pesticides the shield.”
I mentioned to Marjolein that I thought there was a certain similarity between chocolate maker Tony’s Chocolonely, which have made it their goal to abolish slavery in the chocolate industry, and the story about Lipton. Why is it then, that Tony’s has managed to communicate this to their consumers, and Lipton couldn’t?
You see that both industries, chocolate and tea, have big issues
“When you talk about Lipton and Tony’s Chocolonely, you see that both industries, chocolate and tea, have big issues. Tony’s started because they wanted to abolish slavery, not just in their chocolate, but in all chocolate. They can be brutally honest and say “This is the issue, and we’re going to solve it.”
They really decided to challenge the industry. Unilever on the other hand, is the biggest tea producer in the world. I think their aim also is to improve the industry, but because of their size, and their vested interests they have to take a different approach… Tony’s had nothing to lose. They were ready to risk everything.”
So, there is a difference between type of company, and how they are able to communicate change. The big players, like Unilever, which do many good things, but whose aim also is to improve the reputation of their brand and to sell, the companies who are merely interested in communicating change but are not really committed to changing. And then there’s the rebel companies, whose purpose has moved from sales, to creating a movement.
They are making it easy for their customers to be a part of their strive for change
“What Tony’s and other movement brands are doing, is that they are mobilizing their consumers. If more people eat Tony’s Chocolonely that will lead to less slavery in the industry, and they are making it easy for their consumers to be a part of that change. For example, they encourage you to give Tony’s Chocolonely bars to your friends and show them the inside of the wrapper, which tells the story about how slavery is used in the chocolate industry. They are making it easy for their consumers to be a part of their strive for change.”
Hope for the future
I left the interview feeling hope for the future. After discussing both the big boys as well as the rebel players, and hearing that everyone is dealing with this topic, I sincerely hope that we’re moving towards a time where it’s not only the communication that counts, but the strive for change. “The most important aspect is that sustainability communication should be rooted in the future, and that you are not afraid to show both progress challenges, even though you haven’t reached your goal yet.”
Cover: Anne Hamers / Final editing: Tamar Hellinga