Shanghai “Telling Your Sustainability Story” Workshop

Following on from our Beijing session last week, on May 23rd we hosted 25 communications, PR, and sustainability professionals in Shanghai to a workshop titled Telling Your Sustainability Story to help them better understand and anticipate how to better build social capital with their stakeholders.  The session was led by presentations from PT Black, Senior Director of Brand Experience and Planning at Nike, and Tong Zhao, China Country Lead at Terracycle, and it was a session that really highlighted the difference between how sustainability stories are communicated at the technical level and the brand level.

Tong told the story of Terracycle, a global company that “recycles the non-recyclable”, turning waste which is traditionally not economical to use, into new products. Terracycle helps brands to develop sustainability stories, by working with them to collect, sort and recycle different types of waste and turn them into packaging, creative upcycled products, or completely new items.

Recycling and sustainable materials are our problem, not our consumers’ problem. It’s our responsibility and we have to figure it out as ethical members of the community… People come to us for our products, not for how we manage our waste streams.”

At a global level they have worked with P&G to turn beach plastic into the world’s largest production run of recyclable shampoo bottles, and more locally in China they are working with Colgate on their oral care range, and with L’Oreal to turn hair care packaging into desks and chairs for migrant schools. Through this partnership with Terracycle, these brands have developed their own sustainable innovations as well as creating a story to share with their customers and stakeholders.

Companies like Interface and Terracycle talk about the social and environmental issues they are trying to solve through their products and services, and while the stories can come across as technical, the reasoning is that the audience for these stories are usually not end-consumers, especially for B2B firms. These stories are often aimed at other core stakeholders, whether that is B2C buyers, employees, government, NGOs, or investors.

However, on the other side, at the pure branding and marketing level, big consumer brands who are still working on sustainable materials and recycling in the value chain do not mention these accolades in their direct marketing campaigns at all. They find that consumers are not sensitised to environmental sustainability when making a purchase and can actually see it as being an inferior attribute for a product. Nevertheless, stories about social issues – be it women empowerment, social equality, or disability – can be used to inspire and build social capital and markets by brands that are seen to support the cause.

Key takeaways for Sustainability Storytelling

Through a case study on the automotive industry, participants were asked to split up and develop their own sustainability story on road safety in Shanghai.  Given only 15 minutes to work through the exercise, here were some of the key takeaways:

  • Whether directly or indirectly trying to sell a product, the consumer is always going to be the key stakeholder when running a public campaign, therefore it is important to know your end-consumer well, and align the messaging to their interests, emotions and desires.
  • Happy or Sad Story? While sad stories can be very powerful, communicate the need for responsibility, and generate awareness of an environmental or social problem, a company that communicates an inspirational or uplifting message as part of a solution will often build longer lasting social capital.
  • Partnerships should be leveraged to amplify the story’s message – whether it is Interface partnering with the ZSL, L’Oreal with Terracycle, or sportswear firms with their ambassadors – brands can also use what they are doing to share others’ messages.


Upcoming events in Shanghai:
BBAU June Workshop – Materials & Waste – 27th June
BBAU June Young Professional Forum – Materials & Waste – 27th June

Upcoming events in Beijing:
BBAU June Workshop – Materials & Waste – 29th June

Upcoming events in Hong Kong:
BBAU June Workshop – Materials & Waste – 29th June

If you have any questions about the Beyond Business as Usual series, please get in touch with Charlie[@]

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