The Rise of Sustainability Communications

2019 AASHE conference attendees actively listening to 'Why So Serious: Making Space for Silliness, Humor and Fun in Sustainability Communications' session.

Lisa Nicolaison’s path to sustainability communications started at Elon, a small private university in North Carolina where she studied psychology and worked with other students to inspire sustainability action on campus. After promoting sustainability projects in Ghana for the Peace Corps, she joined Princeton University’s Office of Sustainability as a program coordinator and began to concentrate on messaging and engaging with the community.

In her new position, Nicolaison sought resources for how to effectively communicate in a field that was still new and undefined. Yet she could not find many. At one of the most prominent sustainability conferences in the world, hosted by The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, she would sometimes find only one presentation about sustainability communications.

“Everyone would go to the one presentation,” she said of communicators for other universities, “and we were like, this isn’t enough, we need more.” 

In response, Nicolaison organized a networking session in 2017 and was surprised to see that many people shared her desire for collaboration.

“How do we communicate beyond this one event, this one conference?” she said.

The networking session inspired Nicolaison to create the Sustainability Communicators Network in 2019, a listserv that has grown to 280 members who discuss communications strategy and events, brainstorm together, and share resources. The network now hosts quarterly calls for members to discuss challenges, reflect on successes at their respective universities, and think through trends (most recently: TikTok and sustainability action plans).

“The last couple of years, everyone seems to be going into the call with the same kinds of challenges,” Nicolaison said.

In the past decade, as higher education institutions have rushed to respond to the realities of climate change, they have increasingly formed offices of sustainability and hired communicators to lead their messaging. Because of their position in the university, and because of the urgency of their subject matter, communicators have found themselves positioned in a dense, tangled web of audiences and tasks. How do you message about institutional responses to the climate crisis when your audiences will invariably critique them for being too bold or not bold enough? How do you speak with student groups that vary each year with graduations and enrollments? How do you engage with audiences about the mundane yet necessary work of facilities upgrades, such as replacing light bulbs or sticking decals on glass to prevent bird collisions? How do you write about something that is not entirely here yet? And how do you message about destruction and the loss of the world we know?

Strategies for communication: Conversations, stories, events

For Jill Sakai, the first communications director for UW–Madison’s Office of Sustainability, the primary challenge of her role was to define the new office.

“One of [my approaches] was letting the campus community know what was going on,” she said. “This was a brand-new initiative [and] administrative unit for the campus [in 2012], so a lot of it was being able to create a community. I saw the communications as helping to build that community, and provide information about what campus was doing, and also to collect information about what people were interested in doing … to improve sustainability on campus.”

Like many other universities, UW–Madison has treated sustainability not solely as natural resources conservation but as “the process of teaching, learning, researching, and operating in our community” toward equitable environmental, social, and economic benefits. Sustainability affects all disciplines, all aspects of campus and the world, so communicating about it brings the difficulty of needing to speak to many at once.

“Sustainability is inherently multidisciplinary, so you’re always trying to bridge a lot of ideas and viewpoints,” Sakai added, noting she views the discipline’s breadth as an advantage. “You can ask ten people what sustainability is and get ten different answers that would all fall under this broad umbrella. Underneath that umbrella, there’s a lot of different ways to approach sustainability issues and questions. It gives you a lot of flexibility.”

Nathan Jandl, who took over for Sakai in 2017, said he continued her efforts “to get people to know the Office of Sustainability existed on campus” while taking care to avoid a single approach to the office’s audiences.

“Sustainability is a broad topic, and we have a broad set of stakeholders: it is students of all stripes, it is staff in all corners of the university, it is faculty, it’s deans, it’s directors, it’s higher administration, and then it’s the community, peer institutions, folks around the state,” he said. 

Jandl’s strategy involves a variety of events, media, and student programs. He has overseen the communications team of the O.S.’s student intern program to produce The SustainUW Podcast, Instagram and TikTok Posts, news stories, and a Where Are They Now? series that highlights career paths of former interns. He publishes a monthly newsletter and facilitates dialogues among students and faculty in events such as the annual campus-wide Earth Week, the new Sustainability Symposium, and last year’s divestment roundtable. In 2021 Jandl hired a graduate student assistant (the writer of this story) to produce in-depth features about sustainability topics, leaders, and events; launch the Sustainability Writing Awards; and collaborate with instructors across campus in training students to write about sustainability.

Across state lines, at the University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign, Tony Mancuso, the communications and public affairs director for the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment, draws from his experience as an editor for The News-Gazette in Champaign to lead a team of two other full-time communications specialists, a half-time videographer, two student writing interns, and two student social media interns.

“I kind of treat our staff like a newsroom,” Mancuso said. “We think about ideas that we have—trends, stories, whether it’s campus sustainability or research or education—but we also try to make sure that we’re covering things in the news now, things that are coming up, making sure we keep a calendar.”

“My concept of it is to get the word out about the good things that are being done, get the word out about things that can be done, and also make sure that we give proper credit to everybody who is putting forth the effort.”

Mancuso and his team publish three newsletters about campus sustainability efforts each month, as well as a monthly newsletter about campus sustainability research. Yet Mancuso emphasizes more organic student engagement efforts—such as a class that trains students to be sustainability ambassadors, or Illini Lights Out, an event that draws hundreds of student volunteers to flip off lights in buildings on Friday nights—as the most effective way of sustainability communications.

“We feel like our students are very engaged, and there is a percentage of our students that is hugely engaged in this. But to get it to the whole student population has to come from conversations,” Mancuso said. “Our newsletter reaches 2,500 people per week. Well, that’s a fraction of the university’s population. To grow that culture of sustainability is going to take one person talking to ten people.”

“We communicate, we send out newsletters,” he continued. “We found that has been very effective, but again, it’s reaching your captive audience, reaching the people you already know. So how do we do things that reach more people?”

Defining audiences: Lessons from Michigan

The sustainability communications manager at the University of Michigan, Adam Fisher, works in a unique role within the Office of the Vice President for Communications. While other universities employ sustainability staffers on public affairs teams or use communicators in sustainability schools or offices to disseminate information about university-wide efforts, Fisher said he is “the only centrally situated sustainability-exclusive communicator that I know of.”

In his position, Fisher coordinates with communicators for the university Office of Campus Sustainability, Graham Sustainability Institute, and School for Environment and Sustainability, in addition to sharing information with the Student Sustainability Coalition and the Planet Blue Ambassador program, both of which publish their own newsletters. While Fisher might write more generally for local media, the Office of Campus Sustainability might write more technically for internal audiences.

Fisher said he communicates “with the goal of bringing awareness to priority audiences and encouraging them to get involved and spur action.” He described a need for consistency in terms, which he can facilitate through his centralized position.

“Oftentimes students or even staff or faculty or community members can assume all university decisions—whether they’re at the school or individual unit level or at the university level—are made in one room by a few people,” Fisher said. “When there are people using different brand guidelines —let’s say, one college is using different language for our carbon neutrality agreement than another—that’s a challenge. Getting a community that’s 100,000 people strong to speak with one voice on this topic is hard, and it’s especially hard with an issue that is urgent, that will remain a priority, that there’s a lot of public advocacy on—both by climate deniers and climate absolutists, for lack of a better term—and you have to speak with one voice that is amenable to the most number of audiences.”

Consistency has also emerged as a broader challenge for sustainability, Fisher said, because, “there is no universal set of standards for what sustainability means, for what climate action means, for what carbon neutrality means.” 

One of Fisher’s approaches to communicating with multiple audiences comes from his experience as an editorial associate for a creative consultancy founded by The Atlantic. When he drafts communications plans, he considers “priority audiences” “by typologies.”

“I prefer to group audiences by their habits rather than by their roles,” he said. “Instead of thinking about students, staff, faculty, I think about insiders, advocates, apathetics. I find that’s useful in Ann Arbor, a place where the town and university are so deeply intertwined.”

Fisher classifies insiders, for example, as those with high literacy in sustainability, variable advocacy, high interest, and high engagement. Advocates possess variable sustainability literacy, high interest, high engagement, and high advocacy, while apathetics bear a low interest in sustainability, along with low advocacy and low awareness. The target audiences change, Fisher said, and also include groups such as influencers, who promote the brand but might not read too deeply into the topics, or cynics and climate deniers, who are oppositional. 

“When faced with a recent development,” he said, “I ask myself, Which of these groups will this appeal to most?”

Fisher offered a few examples. A story about a building earning a LEED gold certification might not interest donors and influencers, so he could write it with technical details for knowledgeable readers within university leadership. However, he would write a major story about university investments or carbon neutrality to a broad audience, with “high-level” explanations and acknowledgements of donors and advocates.

“I’ve noticed that when we’re in the action phase of an effort, rather than the committee or planning phase, it’s that much more powerful to audiences,” he added. “Process-oriented stories tend to have a mixed performance: people are generally glad that you could be analyzing or discussing an issue, but after a certain amount of time they see it as inertia. Communications, as a general rule, is only as good as the news behind it.”

Writing and the climate catastrophe; or, practices in seeing

Back at UW–Madison, the Office of Sustainability’s emphasis on communicating with broad, diverse audiences through clear writing dates to the tenure of Cathy Middlecamp, the former director of sustainability education and research who co-founded the office and was known to be scrupulous with words.

“Writing is all about the reader,” said Middlecamp, who is critical of the long and jargoned sentences frequently used by scientists. “People who write often think it’s all about them, but what you’re writing for is people.”

Despite a well-written sentence, university offices of sustainability will need to contend with the broader conceptual difficulties occasioned by the climate crisis.

“How do you animate the problems that we’re facing right now—through writing, graphical forms, film—in such a way that you actually engage people and lock them in to care about those issues?” Jandl said. “Part of that has to do with the type of change we’re seeing,” which is slow, sometimes impersonal, and seemingly far away in time and place. 

In response, all writers—not only in higher ed—will need to invent ways to connect the multitudinous causes and effects of climate change, breaking from a limited human point of view, as novelists such as Amitav Ghosh and Olga Tokarczuk have suggested. In the context of a news release, communicators have emphasized how they can describe technical developments more visually and relatably. 

“It’s really necessary, in my experience, to put numbers into human terms,” Fisher said. “People don’t know what a megawatt hour is: it’s not tangible unless you’re a subject matter expert. Putting that in annual households emissions or number of cars on the road can be really, really helpful. Otherwise people don’t know the difference between one megawatt and one hundred megawatts and how impactful the efforts are.”

Jandl added that the problem might become easier to solve as the effects of climate change worsen and become more immediately apparent. Nicolaison noticed an increase in student and faculty interest in sustainability as the crisis became more imminent during her time with Princeton and as sustainability offices started adopting more “justice-oriented” approaches. This is especially true with the lockdowns of the coronavirus pandemic, which caused masses of people to pause their work lives, live at a slower pace, wander outdoors, and reconsider their relationship with the world.

“Paradoxically, the popularity of the idea of sustainability will provide its own challenges,” Jandl speculated, remarking that the name of the discipline might change (it once was environmentalism; we might transition to having offices of resilience or, one fears, survival). “As it gets co-opted into a branding tool, as greenwashing gets more subtle, as companies transition into this space not necessarily because they want to be more sustainable but because they see it as an opportunity for more revenue and growth, helping people to distinguish what sustainability actually means is going to be an ongoing challenge.”

Fisher also commented on the difficulty that corporations introduce to sustainability communicators with greenwashing, or marketing strategies that mislead consumers and conceal companies’ lack of action and accountability.

“There’s a lot of skepticism toward sustainability because, in my view,  there are a lot of folks outside of our sector who work in corporate communications who will openly greenwash,” he said. “I think university communicators are really careful not to, but if you’re a casual observer and you see that there’s this industrial company that has a vocal commitment to the environment and you’re not seeing the same thing from your university, you’re going to assume that your university has a worse environmental record. That’s usually not the case.” 

Optimism at the end of the world

Faced with the financial, social, and ethical needs and demands of many, as well as the likely mass migration of humans and extinction of animal and plant species, offices of sustainability have decided to be positive. The goal, communicators said, was to engage audiences and inform them, but not to a state of helpless despair.

“Even if most of the people on campus are on board with sustainability, you just know that there are people who are not,” Mancuso said, noting his efforts to share quirky or moving stories such as his university’s research to use pig feces to produce pavement or sell a net-zero home built by a campus initiative to a local veteran. “You don’t want to preach. So finding out a way to point out the good is the first thing you can do, and to profile that. Encouragement by example. And then being able to talk to people and have them have that passion and carry it with them through their future conversations.”

“There’s been a big shift in communications around doom and gloom and not focusing on the negative impact,” said Nicolaison, who left her university to work as a project manager for Sustainable Princeton, a nonprofit working to make Princeton “a model town that examines every action through the lens of sustainability,” and to found Green LMN, a consulting company through which she works with clients to develop sustainability communications strategies. “Obviously there’s so much to be scared about and to be aware about, but that doesn’t help people, that doesn’t bring people in, that doesn’t make a community. People need to come together around positive impact and having goals for the future.”

“I mean, how many breaking points do we have to reach for people to really feel like… I don’t know, that’s more doom-and-gloom messaging too, right?”

One aspect to messaging about actions and solutions, Nicolaison said, comes in transparently reporting university decisions that students and faculty members have long called for.

“That makes for great storytelling, but it also helps with that doom and gloom again,” Nicolaison said. “Things are happening, it’s taking some time, but bear with us and support us and here’s what you can do. That kind of messaging is going to be really important and is what people are using more of, hopefully, in their communications.”

Yet, at least at the margins of thoughts and speech, one feels uncertainty. In contrast to more profit-driven communicators in other industries, corporate word-twisters who fabricate an institution’s image and voice, sustainability communicators said they genuinely bear the task to halt the sixth extinction. They sort their recycling, bike, conserve water, harvest gardens in their backyards. They act in awareness of the news: despite far-away pledges, industrialized nations need to halve emissions within the next six years and completely halt them by 2050 to avert the onslaught of catastrophic heat waves, floods, food scarcity, and extinction. And they might fear, working in small teams at the corners of universities, that they might not be doing enough or that they cannot do enough.

“A lot of the time people don’t feel like they’re being heard doing this work, they don’t feel like their communications have an impact,” Nicolaison said. “I’m hoping to show people how to measure that, how to understand their impact more.”

“When you’re in higher ed you can work with a student one semester and never see them again and then they graduate. But what will they do after graduation? There are so many impacts that could have on one student, and that’s another very powerful thing with working within higher ed. You never know what impact you might have on someone.”

By: Marek Makowski