The Complete Guide To Social Media Sustainability

Combining Sustainability And Social Media Can Be A Powerful Tool For Brands To Drive Both Sales And Positive Environmental Change

Sustainability has become an increasingly important topic for businesses and consumers—so important, in fact, that anywhere from one third to two-thirds of consumers have said they would spend more money on sustainable brands and products.

Companies recognize the need to reduce the environmental impact of their practices and products, while consumers seek products and services that align with their values.

And when it comes to marketing these values, sustainability and social media go together like reels and the Instagram algorithm. 

Social media is overtaking traditional marketing methods and is now a powerful tool for companies to communicate their sustainability efforts to consumers and engage with them on important issues. 

But what exactly is social media sustainability, and why should businesses care? How do you even use it? And are there any practices that you should avoid?

Let’s take a deep dive into social media, activism, sustainability, and how these areas intersect for both businesses and consumers.

What Is Social Media Sustainability?

With over 4.9 billion people logging into various social platforms—Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, TikTok, among others—businesses must consider how to leverage their online presence for the greater good. 

Brands and influencers can use their collective voice to inspire change and gain a more powerful follower base.

Considering all that, social media sustainability is the responsible use of social media platforms to promote sustainable practices, advertise a brand’s eco-friendly efforts, and educate viewers on brand-related sustainability issues.

The Rise Of Sustainability Movements On Social Media

Sustainability movements have risen on social media in a variety of facets, including:

  • Influencer campaigns: Social media influencers and their partnered brands have embraced sustainability as a theme for their content, promoting eco-friendly products and practices to their followers. 
  • Hashtag campaigns: Hashtags like #plasticfree, #zerowaste, and #sustainableliving have become popular on social media, allowing people to connect and share tips, resources, and success stories related to sustainability.
  • Citizen journalism: Social media has given everyday citizens the power to document and share environmental issues that might otherwise go unnoticed.
  • Online petitions: Social media has made it easier for people to launch and share online petitions related to sustainability issues. This has helped to raise awareness and put pressure on companies and governments to take action.
  • Education and awareness: Social media has become a valuable tool for educating people about sustainability and raising awareness about environmental issues. Social media’s transparent and informal nature offers a great opportunity to chat openly about hard-hitting, complex issues like climate change.

In a world where viral recognition is a few clicks away, what better way to use this than to encourage a more sustainable lifestyle?

The Importance Of Social Media Sustainability For Businesses

Why should businesses care about social media sustainability? Is a social media campaign on sustainability really going to make a difference and resonate with their customers?

The short answer is yes.

Even if companies aren’t in a particularly ‘green’ industry, they can use social media to highlight these pitfalls and advocate for a collective rethink. Being a sustainable trendsetter is a powerful way to appeal to consumers and boost brand image.

Gone are the days when organizations could get by without addressing their sustainability practices—consumer behavior and general consensus has shown how crucial an eco-friendly and ethical approach is in determining brand longevity and relevance.

A 2021 survey conducted by Edelman found that 60% of global consumers said they would either boycott or support a brand based on its stance on social or environmental issues.

Using social media to declare sustainable product changes, carbon reduction goals, or community support is a good way to show a brand listens to and engages with their consumers’ opinions. 

Research proves consumers are more likely to pay more and buy from environmentally-friendly businesses. Communicating these efforts to attract more conscious customers and investors can result in considerable profits. 

While sustainability reports are one way to do this (and a very important one), dense language, information overwhelm, and a hard-to-share format makes these less effective than social media at reaching large swaths of people.

Most users turn to social media to get a first impression of a brand before diving deeper into their corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts—and you know what they say about first impressions.

That’s especially true given that 87% of people say following a brand on social media makes them more likely to visit their website 

Beyond that, social media is an almost routine means of receiving information updates and engaging with or sharing opinions. 

This means traditional, physical marketing methods are becoming outdated and less effective in communicating with consumers. If brands want to reach specific audiences with their sustainability messages, they need to tap into where their customers are gathering and be present on the proper channels.

Younger users, especially, are increasingly aware of how a brand presents itself online. With Gen Z making up 40% of the global consumer population, a well-executed and considered social media sustainability campaign is integral. 

Brands need to cut through the noise and stand out from their competitors. Having a clear stance on green and ethical issues can help achieve this.

Unfortunately, many businesses aren’t recognizing the potential benefits of social media sustainability marketing, and thus aren’t using these platforms effectively. For most social media campaigns, sustainability is either secondary or addressed in a relatively sterile and basic fashion, which only leads audiences to think brands aren’t serious about their sustainability practices.

Though they may come from a strategic business standpoint, sustainability social media campaigns should not be performative. They need to be genuine.

Missing this major opportunity to utilize social media to communicate legitimate sustainable initiatives to billions of consumers could be costing businesses—and the planet.

Social Media As Sustainability Change Agent For Businesses 

While the power of purchase is still the greatest tool in the consumer’s arsenal, social media and its open platform for discussion and critiques is becoming a close secondary means of persuading companies to pursue better business practices.

As more people put companies under the microscope, critiquing their sustainability efforts and ethical practices (or lack thereof) for all to see in the public forum, we’ve seen social media play an influential role in brand image. 

When public criticism arises for millions of people to see, it forces organizations to reevaluate their corporate responsibility—or risk being #canceled, the modern equivalent to boycotting.

This has led numerous brands to reassess how they speak about themselves on social media, leading to new transparency levels, increased focus on diversity, and alignment with consumer values.

For example, Adidas faced criticism on social media for its continued use of virgin plastic in its products. In response, the company launched a sustainability initiative called “Parley for the Oceans” in 2015, which involves using recycled ocean plastics in its products.

What’s more, policy changes in response to online criticism shows brands are indeed listening to their customers and followers, which strengthens a brand’s corporate image in multiple ways.

SDGs & Social Media Eco-Promotion

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are 17 goals adopted by the United Nations in 2015. They were intended to guide global efforts towards sustainable development, covering a range of issues, including poverty reduction, gender equality, access to clean water and energy, and climate action. 

Social media can play a significant role in achieving the SDGs for businesses and individuals by promoting awareness and advocacy, engaging stakeholders, and providing a platform for dialogue and collaboration.

There are many ways organizations can use social media to support SDGs, including:

  • No Poverty (SDG 1): Businesses in the financial or professional sectors can use social media to raise awareness of poverty and support poverty reduction efforts by promoting initiatives such as microfinance, fair trade, and social entrepreneurship.
  • Gender Equality (SDG 5): Brands can use social media to raise awareness of gender inequality and support women’s empowerment initiatives by promoting internal equality campaigns and sharing stories of women’s achievements.
  • Clean Water and Sanitation (SDG 6): Social media can promote access to clean water and sanitation by sharing information and resources on sustainable water management and promoting water conservation practices.
  • Affordable and Clean Energy (SDG 7): Companies can use social media to promote the adoption of renewable energy sources and energy-efficient technologies by sharing information and resources on sustainable energy practices.
  • Climate Action (SDG 13): Social media can raise awareness of climate change and promote climate action by sharing information and resources on sustainable practices, advocating for policy change, and supporting initiatives such as reforestation and renewable energy.

Social media sustainability can also contribute to achieving the SDGs by promoting transparency and accountability. 

It can be used to monitor and report on progress toward the SDGs, share best practices, and hold governments and companies accountable for their commitments.

In 2019, the UN Global Compact launched the SDG Ambition initiative to accelerate business action and impact the SDGs. The initiative includes a social media campaign, encouraging companies to share their sustainability commitments and progress towards the SDGs using the hashtag #SDGAmbition.

Aligning with the SDGs in social media sustainability campaigns allows businesses to demonstrate their environmental and ethical awareness in terms of a globally accepted sustainability framework—which helps ward against the greenwashing often used in sustainability marketing. 

The global support and recognition of the SDGs insert brands into the wider sustainability conversation and are more likely to engage audiences.

Pros Of Using Social Media Sustainability

Social media can be a great way for brands to promote sustainability efforts and advocate for wider change. Campaigns target consumers directly and highlight an organization’s commitment to sustainability. 

Let’s look at the advantages of using social media to communicate a company’s sustainability practices.

Social Media & Transparency

Social media provides an effective platform for companies to be open and honest about their approach to sustainability. 

Organizations can use social media to share information about their environmental and social impact, including their carbon footprint, waste reduction efforts, and social responsibility initiatives.

How a business communicates its sustainability efforts is one of the ways Sustainly ranked brands on its Annual Social Media Sustainability Index. The Index looked at the way 475 global companies communicated sustainability—in particular, how they communicate their sense of purpose—or what they actually stand for.

In its 6th year, GE and Unilever topped the Index. 

Beyond the real world impacts of their sustainability efforts, both brands utilized a “comprehensive series of communication and marketing initiatives”,” including sharing investigative reports, encouraging follower participation, and providing scientific information in digestible formats.

By being transparent in communications, companies can build trust with their stakeholders and brand recognition, appealing to customers, investors, and employees.

Accountability & Progress Through Social Media

Sustainability movements on social media can be a powerful tool to publicly push for progress, particularly for companies not meeting their sustainability commitments. 

Consumers and other stakeholders can use social media to demand more company transparency and accountability, leading to increased progress and action.

Businesses can approach this by calling out offenders in their own industry while promoting their stance and efforts. Targeting unsustainable competitors and recognizing wider problems can help companies align with consumers and public interest while pressuring organizations to change their behavior. 

While a certain degree of decorum is encouraged—blind brand bashing looks bad, too—this can be an effective way to address both business ethics and sustainability with social media.

Dissemination Of Information Via Social Media

Social platforms provide a quick and efficient way for companies to disseminate information about their sustainability efforts to a wide audience. 

Companies can use social media to share updates about their sustainability initiatives, promote events, and share relevant news and research related to sustainability.

It’s also a relatively cheap and eco-friendly alternative way to spread information compared to traditional marketing methods. The low cost enables organizations to experiment with their communication style, post more often, and engage with previously untapped audiences. 

Social media allows businesses to engage with public conversation quickly and widely share their approach, solution, or stance. This is particularly useful and effective when responding to social justice issues or current industry events.

Promote Conscious Consumption On Social Media

A clever way brands can use social media is to promote more conscious consumption. 

While this might mean encouraging consumers to buy less, it allows companies to highlight why their product is worth investing in i.e., made from more durable, sustainable materials, or they offer a repair service. 

Posts can be used to educate followers on the environmental and ethical impact of their purchases, which can lead to more responsible consumption habits. This is especially impactful in the fashion industry, which is regularly criticized for its overconsumption and throwaway culture.

Cons Of Using Social Media Sustainability

Unsurprisingly, many brands use sustainable social media campaigns to manipulate messaging and deceive consumers to their advantage.

The relatively unregulated and cost-efficient nature of marketing on social channels means companies often misuse their platforms to spread incorrect information and boost their image. It’s also easy for followers to take down a brand for mistakes, costing money, reputation, and jobs.

While social media can be a powerful tool for promoting sustainability efforts, there are also potential drawbacks to consider.

Greenwashing Through Social Media

Greenwashing is one of the biggest problems of sustainability promotion on social media

It’s easy for businesses to make false or misleading sustainability claims to make them seem more environmentally friendly or ethical. 

An investigation by Harvard University found car brands, airlines, and fossil fuel companies all participate in this behavior. The report, commissioned by Greenpeace, showed that such businesses used language and imagery to position themselves as “green, innovative, and charitable brands” while staying silent on their impact on the planet.

One example includes airline Lufthansa’s Instagram post showing a plane blending into the body of a shark swimming in the ocean. The post was meant to highlight a new plane coating modeled off shark skin that improves airflow and reduces fuel consumption. Accompanying Tweets promoted their use of biofuel on some routes, using the hashtag #SustainableAviationFuel.

This campaign obviously omitted the massive environmental impact of flying and failed to mention the fuel accounts for only a small amount used by the aviation industry. 

This distracts attention from their core business roles and responsibilities, which the report called “misdirection”. 

Using vague phrases like “green innovation” without explicitly addressing specific actions or completely ignoring the climate crisis was also common. 

With social media “now at the forefront of climate disinformation and deception”, businesses must take accountability and responsibility for the sustainability messages they share on their platforms. 

Government Oversight Of Social Media

Recent years have seen calls for the government to step in and regulate businesses’ sustainability campaigns, largely in an effort to prevent greenwashing and address social media as a sustainability change agent.

Brands may face scrutiny for their messaging, which is only set to increase.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) already has a set of “Green Guides ” that organizations must follow if making environmental claims. It involves having competent and reliable scientific evidence to support their claims.

Different criteria are in place for various sustainable terms, such as “free-of”, “carbon offset”, “compostable”, “recyclable”, and more. It primarily consists of needing to back up all claims with proof and not using the term in an irresponsible way, for example, if the law already requires a product to be recyclable.

Despite government regulation being one of the biggest ways to prevent greenwashing and misuse of information, many still accuse their local boards of not being harsh enough.

False News

News circulates fast on social media—it can take only minutes for a post to go viral, being cross-posted across platforms and shared among messaging apps.

This also allows false news to spread quickly. Misinformation about climate change can undermine the credibility of companies promoting their sustainability initiatives. 

Brands need to position themselves in such a way to influence consumers, highlight their efforts, and fight against the barrage of misinformation regarding the environment. It’s a tricky and often toxic space to navigate, and one that opens up a business to scrutiny and criticism.

Cancel Culture

Cancel culture refers to boycotting or publicly shaming individuals or companies that engage in behavior deemed unacceptable by a contingent of the online community. 

Companies promoting sustainability efforts may be vulnerable to cancel culture if they are perceived to fall short of their sustainability commitments. 

While this is beneficial for addressing the wrongful actions of brands that deserve criticism, it can deter organizations from addressing environmental issues and investing time or money to change behaviors. Examples include fashion brands who release more eco-conscious lines or use sustainable materials in their products.

Businesses might worry that their efforts aren’t “green” enough, or fear being called out for previous environmental behaviors. 

However, allowing room for evolution is integral to adopting more climate-friendly and ethical behavior.

How To Implement A Social Media Sustainability Campaign

There are several ways organizations can market sustainability on social media.

In Sustainly’s Social Media Sustainability Index, brands are encouraged to connect with audiences in an entertaining, informative, and authentic way, voicing the issues they care about to promote their sustainability work.

Highlighting sustainability efforts is an integral part of the brand narrative. If a company incorporates an honest and insightful mindset in their campaigns, and consistently so, they’re more likely to be effective with consumers and stakeholders and avoid some previously discussed cons.

Some ways to have a successful social media sustainability campaign are:

  1. Define your audience: Understanding the target audience is critical to crafting a sustainable message that resonates. Determine who you are trying to reach and their interests, values, and concerns regarding the environment.
  1. Highlight values: Share core values and why sustainability matters to your brand (i.e., do you have any fair work practices or policies that outline your organization’s behavior?). Ensure the messaging is authentic and transparent, and don’t be afraid to address previous shortfalls or areas for improvement. 
  1. Utilize data: If a brand has any sustainability initiatives, this data should always be shared. Use inventive ways to highlight the results (i.e. how much water you conserved compared to competitors or how many trees your new packaging saves). Facts and figures are a great way to intrigue an audience and back up claims. This is essentially a way to share information contained in sustainability reports in bite-sized chunks.
  1. Be specific: Social media users aren’t going to believe vague commitments to being ‘greener’ or producing ‘less waste’. Be specific with goals, putting a date and number on any initiatives shared. You can then refer to these when you highlight any notable achievements.
  1. Use visuals: Social media is highly visual, so use eye-catching images and videos to showcase sustainability efforts. Social media posts on sustainability can include pictures of sustainable products, green initiatives, and eco-friendly practices. Think of unique ways to present these visually, disrupting the industry narrative and standing out on people’s timelines.
  1. Provide educational content: Social media is a great platform for providing educational content to help people learn more about sustainability. Share articles, infographics, and other resources so followers can understand the impact of their actions on the environment. Tailor these specifically to your industry, for example, the impact of buying new clothes, using plastic toiletries, or certain travel methods. This is good framing to promote a more eco-friendly product or service.
  1. Encourage engagement: Encourage an audience to engage with sustainability efforts by asking questions, hosting polls, and starting conversations. This can help build a community around sustainability initiatives and give a business insight into where to focus its efforts.
  1. Collaborate with influencers: Partnering with social media influencers who share sustainability values can help reach a wider audience and build brand credibility. Look for influencers who are passionate about sustainability and have a strong following to which you want to appeal. 

Brands Doing Sustainability Social Media Campaigns Right

As a final source of inspiration and encouragement for highlighting sustainability efforts on social media, here are some innovative examples of brands doing eco and ethical online media campaigns right.

Patagonia’s Sustainable Social Media Campaigns

The outdoor clothing company’s social media campaigns focus on raising awareness about environmental issues and promoting sustainable practices. 

One example of a successful Patagonia social media campaign is its “Vote the Planet” campaign during the 2016 US Presidential Election. The campaign encouraged people to vote for candidates who supported environmental protection and sustainability. It was promoted on social media with the hashtag #VoteThePlanet.

Bureo’s Sustainable Social Media Campaigns

Bureo is a company that creates sustainable products from recycled fishing nets. 

The organization’s social media channels help raise awareness about ocean plastic pollution and promote sustainable products. 

Its “NET POSITIVA” campaign used social media to share information about its ocean plastic recycling program. The program, which creates new products such as games and chairs from discarded fishing nets, is regularly highlighted online using the hashtag #NetPositiva.

Ben & Jerry’s Sustainable Social Media Campaigns

Ben & Jerry’s often uses product changes as a central feature of its social media campaigns. The changes aim to promote sustainable practices and raise awareness about environmental issues. 

The “Save Our Swirled” campaign encouraged people to take action on climate change in alignment with the 2015 Paris Climate Summit. Ben & Jerry’s joined forces with Avaaz to set up a petition for international leaders to work towards 100% Clean Energy by 2050. The campaign was circulated on social media with the hashtag #SaveOurSwirled.

Closing Thoughts On The Impact Of Social Media On Sustainability

Can social media help to save the environment?

Not outright. If removing carbon from the atmosphere and stopping biodiversity loss were as easy as snapping a selfie and posting a well-timed reel, we might not be poised on the edge of environmental catastrophe. 

However, the impact of social media on sustainability (and vice versa) can still be a positive one. 

While it can’t single-handedly save the world, social media can inspire and educate people, emerging as a powerful tool for promoting sustainability by raising awareness about sustainability issues, showcasing sustainable practices, and mobilizing collective action.

In addition to being an effective channel for communicating a brand’s sustainability efforts to consumers and building a loyal customer base, social media plays a role in pressuring companies to adopt more sustainable practices, either as a response to negative publicity or fear of it.

Despite the potential benefits of social media for sustainability, many businesses are still not effectively using social media to communicate their sustainability efforts. Consumers are looking for tangible actions—not just greenwashing—and social media can be a powerful tool for showcasing those actions.

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