Back in December 2020, Kiroyan Partners’ then senior consultant, Michello Loebis, wrote about the dangers of the constant flood of information within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. She quoted journalist and scholar Susan Moeller’s assessment that “Relentless information and the news cycle in the digital sphere have exacerbated pandemic fatigue […] that when war, famine or even pandemics are constant, they become boring,” (The Jakarta Post, Dec. 11, 2020).
Fast forward to 2023 and these assessments cannot be farther from the truth for sustainability issues in Indonesia. As media consumers, business professionals, journalists, experts and policymakers, we are constantly bombarded with information regarding the importance of sustainability and three-letter buzzwords: CSR, ESG, SDGs, CSV, including this piece.
However, sustainability still feels like a niche, elitist issue in a country where its citizens are struggling to make ends meet. Amid this constant information glut we have arrived at a sustainability fatigue that makes it harder for sustainability to enter mainstream discourse.
I would argue that the form of sustainability communication, especially by companies that still revolve around talking about self-performance rather than advocating for the necessary changes, is the main reason for this situation.
There are three layers of sustainability communication. One, communicating sustainability performance, or in other words, telling stakeholders about what we have done and what we think contribute positively toward better sustainability.
There are numerous examples for this: Company A installs solar panels for its factories, Company B plans to replace its distribution fleet with electric vehicles (EVs), Company C develops partnerships with local farmers, Company D engages consumers for plastic waste recycling programs, and the list goes on. All of these are then packaged and communicated as achievements rather than something that must be urgently done. It is like watching someone throw a can into a garbage bin and then posting about it on social media.
But what is the impact of having an EV fleet or solar-powered electricity for people near factories? How do these acts inspire consumers to buy locally sourced products and reduce plastic waste? Do these measures protect employees from layoffs? What will happen to program beneficiaries 10 years after the program concludes?
Sustainability fatigue comes from constant bombardment of what businesses have done, with little space given to insights from the ones that become the subject of their sustainability programs and educating journalists, surrounding communities and the public about sustainability itself.
It is no wonder that conventional media and popular social media platforms rarely give as many portions to sustainability issues, save for some outlets, as other issues.
A quick search on the most popular podcasts on YouTube with the largest subscribers and one can see that political debates, internet-drama and social-pop culture discussions are the norm. Newspapers’ front page? Election, economy and, sometimes, corruption scandals. Television? The President’s activities and criminal coverage. Sustainability? Go to page 3, scroll down, or it is a few clicks further.
It is nonetheless important to communicate what we have done to keep our stakeholders informed of our sustainability progress but not by means of one-way, short-term communication. These kinds of engagements are limited and do not create a dialogue that leads to an understanding of what is considered important by stakeholders. Companies then should move beyond communicating their self-performance toward the second layer: communicating about sustainability.
This is an essential step to not only raise awareness but also build mutual understanding from the companies’ stakeholders on what sustainability is and why it matters. Otherwise, it would be difficult to build a two-way understanding if stakeholders are reluctant to hear what we say when we do not try to listen first. This is also why sustainability is not a mainstream issue (yet) in Indonesia. Big companies that have the capacity, capital and resources are seldom talking about it in this manner.
After a healthcare crisis resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, companies can now really start talking honestly and openly about why they think sustainability is important for all of us and what we can together define as sustainable practices before moving on to specific practices.
Moreover, it should involve the most vulnerable, marginalized and impacted stakeholder groups in their businesses. This kind of communication should then be treated as a beyond profile-raising strategy that seeks the government’s favor for incentives and investors’ appetite to invest, but to really put sustainability front and center of stakeholders’ attention.
Through communicating about sustainability, we have a better chance in making this issue enter mainstream discourse; one that people talk about at coffee shops, during soccer half-time breaks, a topic to text with our crush, discuss with our children at home and become part of public-school curricula.
How about the third layer? It is communicating for sustainability. This is communication that not only puts sustainability issues and practices front and center, but also advocates behavioral changes for all stakeholders. Companies not only proactively encourage talks about sustainability but also are actively involved in corporate social advocacy efforts. In other words, it is a form of corporate activism in which companies are the agents of change toward better sustainability.
Sustainability communication is an integral part to achieve a more sustainable state of life. It is thus pivotal to reducing the fatigue that we currently have. Therefore, moving quickly from the first layer to the second should be considered imperative by businesses before progressing to the third layer.
Otherwise, as rock band Radiohead puts it in their single No Surprises, our heart is full up like a landfill and our bruises will not heal.