(This post was originally posted by BBN Denmark on 7th January 2020)
Our partner in Denmark reports that small- to medium-sized B2B companies are emerging as sustainability superheroes – supported by powerful storytelling. In a market where the Sustainable Development Goals are hot, how might your company use storytelling to gain a competitive edge and bolster partnerships?
Right now, B2B companies with sustainably centred technology or services are navigating how they fit into the larger sustainable development puzzle. Pieces to this puzzle include other companies, customers, industries, and a Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) marketplace.
To help these companies navigate this relatively unexplored territory, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in conjunction with Monitor Deloitte and the Danish Industry Foundation, started the SDG Accelerator Programme. Still, in its two-year pilot phase, the SDG Accelerator acts as a sounding board for sustainable business innovations that align with one or more of the SDGs – and, thanks to the cylindr BBN team, provides companies with storytelling expertise.
The two-year pilot kicked off at the UN City in Copenhagen in 2018. Back then, my colleague, Pha Khem, attended and later interviewed Monitor Deloitte’s Camilla Marie Thiele, Engagement Manager for SDG innovation projects. Camilla shared why she thinks storytelling in sustainability business innovation can help to inspire others.
This year, I joined the team for the 2019 phase of SDG Accelerator. As a sustainability storytelling advisor in this fast-paced, intense innovation boot camp, my role was three-fold:
- To assist these companies in understanding their sustainability journey
- To help them better understand their niche and synergies in the sustainability market
- To show them how to effectively communicate the first two points to their customers, partners, and employees
Stewards for a meta-sustainability market
The participating companies hailed from a wide range of industries including technology, beauty, fashion, packaging, food, construction, and even the automobile industry. Each came to the event with an innovative tool or system they believed can help contribute to the SDGs.
There was an interconnected trend among these differentiated companies: they want to use their innovative tools or systems to help other companies integrate sustainable development initiatives into their way of doing business. Essentially, they are sustainability-oriented companies that want to help guide other businesses to achieve the sustainability goals – it’s the start of a meta-sustainability economy!
First, the companies determined which of the 17 SDGs its product or service most contributed to making a reality. Then, they used these SDGs as a powerful framework for strengthening their sustainability narrative. When a company nails down its sustainability story, it can use it for attracting talent, customers and investors. On the surface, this practice may seem like it’s only useful for corporate social responsibility (CSR) reporting, but it’s so much more than that.
Swimming for the story—Sustainability superheroes
The more I talked to these companies, the more I understood my mission—to adjust their perspective. Their self-perception needed to evolve. Instead of being just another business trying to sell a product, these companies needed to view themselves as sustainability sidekicks for super customers within and across industries.
When talking with Eltronic, an engineering company focused on increasing the productivity, flexibility and efficiency of businesses, I was inspired by their sustainable aspirations and solutions. This inspiration came forth in my head in the form of a metaphor that could nearly be applied to every company at the event—they want to create symbiotic relationships like that between remora fish and whales.
The evolution of remoras has enabled them to adhere by suction to whales’ bodies. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, as the remora benefits from the whale’s protection and is a source of nutrition, while the whale enjoys the benefits of the remora removing the ectoparasites and loose flakes off its skin.
The SDG Accelerator companies are like the remora fish. They, at first, saw an intimidating whale and wondered, ‘How do I get it to let me hang on to it?’ Then, with a little storytelling, they saw that they would be helping the whale (the other companies) just as much as the whale would help them.
Sustainability storytelling step by step
In the modern era, all companies are looking for ways to improve their CSR and sustainability images. These SDG Accelerator companies can help their customers not only look good but be good, by solving their sustainability issues. From waste management to packaging to new technologies for production assemblies, the range of these companies aim to solve nearly every unsustainable business behaviour. Their only issue—they don’t know how to talk about it.
This is why storytelling is such a powerful business tool that every company needs to master. Humans have been telling stories for as long as human consciousness existed. It was then, as it is now, the most impactful way to communicate purpose. Companies that convey purpose win over the hearts, minds and wallets of consumers and partners alike. While all types of companies are struggling to tell their story, it’s more important than ever that sustainability-oriented businesses learn to tell theirs. Through storytelling, they gain an understanding of how they contribute to the world’s sustainable development while inspiring others to follow in their footsteps. And hopefully, this will create a sustainability chain reaction.