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delegates sat around a table looking at a screen
Delegates collaborating in the boardroom of The Exchange in-person and virtually

Business leaders and stakeholders are increasingly aligned on a sustainability agenda that benefits the planet, consumers, and business growth. The marketing and communications function play a definitive role in supporting this agenda. In a recent regional MarComms Community meeting led by experts from the University of Birmingham, discussions highlighted how this core business function can support a meaningful sustainability agenda.

Enabling solutions to sustainability challenges

Chaired by Helen Toft, Head of Projects and Communications for Business Engagement at the University of Birmingham, and supported by senior academics from the Birmingham Business School, Dr Caroline Moraes and Dr Solon Magrizos, this roundtable was one of several events hosted at The Exchange to generate a community of businesses looking to collaborate with the University of Birmingham on the best practices for communicating solutions to reduce climate impacts in business. By accessing our research and academics, as well as collaborating with other businesses, Marketing and Communications professionals from diverse industries and institutions across the region discussed new solutions to existing challenges within their organisation.

To reduce the noise of the sustainability movement, convening businesses looking at making positive change together with academic institutions and local government to ensure alignment between different industries and businesses of all sizes is crucial. The University of Birmingham’s role as a civic convener, as well as its strengths in collaborating with industry, has been enabling real solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing businesses. Meetings such as this are crucial for creating regional alignment so businesses can tackle challenges together, rather than add to the noise.

Engaging stakeholders with sustainability aims

Discussions pivoted around how sustainability goals can be effectively communicated to stakeholders, as well as how marketing professionals can look introspectively to address the challenges facing industry. From his involvement with The Responsible Marketing Research Group, Lecturer of Marketing at the University of Birmingham, Dr Solon Magrizos, imparted knowledge learnt from his research on the current challenges facing businesses in marketing sustainability to an internal and external audience.

The Responsible Marketing Research Group aims to lead the academic development of knowledge of the subject, to contribute to the learning curriculum and reach out to those interested in improving marketing practices and standards. Dr Solon Magrizos's work involves issues related to ethical companies and ethical consumers, as well as how Corporate Social Responsibility implementation benefits business. During discussions, Dr Solon Magrizos encouraged businesses that certifications such as sustainability accreditation is one step in building trust with the customer.

At its core, marketing creates and delivers business value to a target audience through the communication of products or services. However, Dr Caroline Moraes shared that as audiences become more invested in brands, the outfit of the MarComms team inevitably extends beyond this reach. Now, Marketing and Communications can handle their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) with the same approach as products or services. Dr Solon Magrizos observes that audiences have become “increasingly invested in the social and corporate responsibility of brands” as serious issues such as climate change become the forefront of purchasing decisions. This means that sustainability targets are not just good for the planet, but they make good business practices too.

people talking at a table
Delegates met at The Exchange to share industry insights in tackling sustainability challenges

Greenwashing and the sustainability journey

Acting upon climate targets is one thing, but effectively communicating them to your audience in a way that is sensitive to impacts on the planet is crucial. Inaccurately communicating data and hiding challenges is just as detrimental to a brand as failing to meet targets altogether, Dr Caroline Moraes observes. Greenwashing is currently one of the biggest challenges facing marketers because ‘consumers are becoming more conscious of how their purchasing decisions affect the planet’. Delegates were keen to observe a change in consumer behaviour that is more sympathetic to businesses working towards their sustainability targets. As our academics pointed out, communicating a business’ sustainable targets, as well as the successes and challenges faced by a company are just as important now as communicating revenue and profit to shareholders.

The sustainability pursuit does not come without its challenges. One delegate observed that “sustainability is just as much about the journey as it is a goal”. With net zero targets becoming a prevailing discussion, the ability for businesses to get their message across in such a noisy space was a challenge raised by attendees. One delegate proposed, “We need to build on the generational gap. We are seeing in the younger generations that there is a trend of being held accountable by your employees”. Employees and employers can work together to discover new and existing ways of enhancing sustainability in the workplace, as well as at home, enabling a collaborative approach which ensures stakeholders are engaged fully with wider sustainability goals.

Reflecting sustainability in all aspects of business

Businesses are a multi-faceted ecosystem and sustainability needs to diffuse into all facets of that ecosystem. Moreover, sustainability is also a multi-faceted construct, with multiple layers and definitions. The attendees discussed how they had implemented sustainable practices in each business, and what the outcomes were. One delegate discussed how investing in sustainable, natural spaces within the workplace can have a two-fold positive impact on employees’ stress levels and the environment, “It’s not just good for the bees, but good for our wellbeing to get out with nature”.

Not only were the environmental and employee wellbeing facets of a business discussed, but also the turnover rate for employment within a business. Elisabeth Lewis-Jones, Chief Executive Officer at Liquid, reflected that going down the sustainability route had helped them with staff retention, with Elisabeth supposing that “15% of people would leave employers if they weren’t progressing down the sustainability route”. Hence, businesses need to engage in sustainability practices, so that sustainability can be reflected in all aspects of the business.

Whilst looking inward at processes that could be made sustainable, delegates also discussed the importance of external factors that are often not accounted for when discussing a company’s climate impact. It was agreed that diligence needs to be carried our to ensure that suppliers are following a similar sustainability journey so that any progress made is not being reversed further down the supply chain.

Sustainability is an issue of leadership; you have to lead the way to move forward.

Caroline Moraes, Professor in Marketing, University of Birmingham

Supporting SMEs’ sustainability journey

Delegates shared and discussed the difficulties that SMEs face when trying to implement sustainable practices. While sustainability is a key focal point for all businesses, particularly with the national aim to be net-zero by 2050, SMEs have greater hurdles to conquer compared to larger corporations. Being able to simplify the processes and enhancing support offered to SMEs are crucial in achieving sustainability targets and the lack of control that SMEs have over their physical environments is a barrier to fulfilling sustainability goals. One delegate articulated this struggle, “Half of SMEs don’t own the building they are in, so have to go to the landlord.”

This discussion highlighted that there are aspects of SME businesses that are out of their control. As such, strategies to help SMEs become more sustainable were discussed along with critical analyses of what “sustainability” means. SMEs can perpetuate sustainability by nurturing and maintaining their enterprise to get to a level in which they can enact change in sustainability for their business.

Making it easier for small businesses and keeping them engaged with sustainability targets can be a challenge, especially during times of financial uncertainty. But making small businesses aware of the net positives of sustainability, not just for the planet, but for their costs is fundamental to furthering sustainability aims. With SMEs making up around 90% of all businesses currently operating in the UK, contributing £217bn to the UK economy in 2020, collective successes and failures have an enormous impact on the UK economy.

It is the responsibility of institutions such as the University of Birmingham, local government, and businesses in the region to support everyone’s net zero journey. The University of Birmingham is working closely with businesses across all sectors and geographies to support this transition.

Kim Leary asnd other delegates at a table talking
Kim Leary, CEO of Squibble, discusses sustainability opportunities

Continuing the legacy of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games

As the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games set the standard in sustainability targets, efforts to continue its legacy and build upon it were hot on the agenda. With the legacy of the Games already on the agenda, attendees took the opportunity to reflect on how businesses can continue the precedent that the Commonwealth Games set.

With the games over, how do we keep the legacy of the games moving forwards? To keep up the pace that the games set, we need to go keep up this grass-roots level approach to sustainability. By engaging stakeholders in sustainability targets, and supporting SMEs with sustainability efforts, delegates were clear on the work that needs to be done, as well as the support needed to achieve net zero targets.

Future collaboration opportunities

If you are a business interested in addressing the sustainability aims set by the Government's 2030 Net Zero targets, the University of Birmingham Centre for Responsible Business is hosting its 2022 #UrgentBusinessConf on 28th September. Information on the event and how the register can be found here.

It was great to see so much engagement around the table on this topic and we look forward to the next Regional Community meeting, taking place towards the end of 2022. If you would like to suggest a future theme, join the community, or suggest a panellist for a future event, please contact us at businessteam@contacts.bham.ac.uk.