Context is King

August 31, 2017

A picture began circulating in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Snapped on a smartphone from inside a Best Buy in the days leading up to the disaster, it shows cartons of water on sale. Signs give a price and prod consumers into buying while supplies last. On the surface, it looks like the store is price gouging to turn a profit off potential tragedy. The truth isn’t nearly as dubious.


A little online research shows the prices in the store to be comparable to other retailers. The critical missing piece in all this was context.


Context is often a critical missing piece in how we talk about sustainability as well.


Think about any number of sustainability reports. They’re loaded with tables of data showing how environmentally friendly a company is, or how good they are to employees. On paper the numbers look great. But, how is a reader to compare performance between companies? Business A might have improved their ESG performance over last year, but how are they doing compared to others in their industry? Here, context is king.


So, how can context add value to your sustainability messaging?


Context shows where you excel, and where more needs to happen.

Stakeholders don’t expect your organization to be perfect. In fact, saying you are is normally met with suspicion. Today, transparency around both your strong and weak points is important. Understanding where you excel versus your peers, and placing this in context stakeholders can grasp, will strengthen your competitive positioning.


Knowing where to improve sets you up for stronger performance in the future.


Context turns data sets on their head.

Let’s be honest. Nobody wants to sift through tables of data showing reductions in effluents since 2014. It’s great you’re greening operations, but the bottom line reveals relatively little.


This is where net-impact reporting comes in. Net-impact approaches focus on the good companies are doing related to sustainability. Forum for the Future describes this concept evolving “…out of otherwise conscious businesses that aspire to be “less bad” rather than “good,” having fundamentally confused the two. In fact, we no longer know what “good” even means since we’ve decontextualized it in our reporting.


Think of it in terms of what you’re contributing versus what you’re reducing. For example, a chemical company might normally show waste reduction figures over time. Instead, a net-positive approach would show that through waste reduction they have added X tons of clean water to local waterways.


It’s a nuanced, but important concept. Net-positive approaches have been shown to better unlock senior level commitment to sustainability because leaders see it as a business benefit versus risk. These approaches also broaden out our focus from simple environmental impact reduction to social and economic value measurement.


Context contextualizes value

Every company has their go-to charitable endeavors. These are usually heritage projects started a generation ago. But, how often do we examine the actual impact these projects are having on either our own business, or the people we are trying to serve?


A case in point is China’s Hope School project. Launched a decade ago, the project asks companies to fund the building of schools in poorer rural areas. The program has been wildly successful, so much so you’d be hard pressed to find a company in China that doesn’t actively promote their contribution to a Hope School. The problem is that with so many buildings going up, infrastructure needs – teachers, textbooks, utilities – cannot meet demand. Shells of buildings now litter the countryside.


Armed with this knowledge, a company might reconsider how they spend their charitable contribution for greater societal impact.

Companies big and small are doing great things to make a more sustainable future. Without the right context, though, it’s difficult to separate the signal from the noise. Think about your corporate messaging and how to better contextualize your work for different stakeholders.


Have an interesting story to share on the topic? Let us know in the comments below.


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