Communicating Sustainability

How to create meaningful storytelling around sustainability.

PCH Innovations
5 min readMay 11, 2023

What is a German engineering studio doing talking about communication?

We build things, yes. But we know, generally, people don’t just engage with things, they engage with a story.

I don’t mean story in the sense of ‘This machine was woven by a blind donkey in a remote mountain village’. I mean the multi-dimensional fibers that tie facts together, so that we not only understand them but remember them. It’s a story that conveys urgency, or simplicity, or beauty. It’s the story that gives abstract things meaning. Working in AI and robotics, it’s essential.

We are a species that has always wielded the power of a narrative — to creative and destructive ends — so it’s no surprise that the story around the climate crisis and sustainability positioning has come to underpin politics and industry alike.

Since we shifted our own company focus in 2016, a huge part of our own work consists of helping executives, innovation and R&D teams effect a similar shift towards more sustainable methods of make. And, while we primarily use technology as our medium, a crucial, and often overlooked aspect is using storytelling around our technology to create the conditions for change.

We will always gain new frames of reference, and our language will continue to evolve, but here are some of our evergreen truths behind communicating sustainability and countering the greenwashing machine.

Activate with optimism

For decades, scientists, activists, and (some) news outlets have done the thankless task of explaining how dire our planetary situation is — and come up against incredulity, anger and despair. But, now that this reality has been woven more and more into our contemporary narrative, if we continue to share the same bleak outlooks and admonishments, we risk inviting an era of resignation.

So rather than continuing to push people to act against something negative, we need to be activated to work towards something positive. Not a utopian destination, but a story that acknowledges its own imperfections while offering possibilities. A story that grows defiantly towards a thriving vision.

Rather than continuing to push people to act against something negative, we need to be activated to work towards something positive.

In our work, this means three things : 1. Create technology towards a regenerative future, 2. Make it accessible, and 3. Make it inspiring.
And, whether through community interaction or industry engagement, designing an experience around the technology we build, helps to create a sustainability story that sticks.

Add meaning with action

We all know the way of trends: buzzwords emerge, a rebranding frenzy ensues (think of how pleather Madonna’d its way to vegan leather), ugly facts are hidden by friendly euphemisms, things surge in popularity only to fall out of favor as soon as they have been misused and revealed as empty.

From eco-friendly, to green, to organic, to natural, to conscious, to sustainable, to regenerative — all of these words have at one time been the mark of good intention and behavior, only to be invalidated by the lack of, or contrary action of the few.

But the same way colors have different associations across cultures because of how they are applied, so we can fortify what our stories mean to people through how we apply our language.

Convincing storytelling around sustainability depends as much on trusting the narrator as relating to the story, and if people can equate words with their promised outcomes, those words can both regain and retain their lustre.

Give clarity over complexity

While more and more consumers are becoming familiar with the terms and indicators of sustainability, some industries engage in what I call ‘omission by overload’, whereby they mire their message in so many unnecessary technical details or company-specific terms that they actually appear less transparent.

If you have an important message, your consumers shouldn’t have to synthesize reams of data to understand why it’s important. State it clearly in accessible and — where possible— familiar terms, while retaining the detailed information behind it in a second tier that one has the option to view.

For the most part, consumers are interested in why something is good for them (e.g. price, quality, status or health) and/or why something is good for something else (e.g. the environment or society). Framing sustainability’s impact in relatable terms equips people to make better decisions for themselves and the planet.

At PCH, making benefits more tangible — and technology less daunting — can mean designing machines that elevate automation processes to a front-of-house spectacle rather than a back-of-house black box, celebrating the use of reclaimed materials and making the circular resource flows easy to understand at first sight.

Convincing storytelling around sustainability depends as much on trusting the narrator as relating to the story.

Make sustainability a standard

It’s clear that in the early era of popular skepticism (or convenient denial), sustainability-consciousness might have been something that needed to be incorporated as its own campaign, or even a gimmick, to warm people up to the idea that the earth is burning.

But today, with the increased collective awareness, it is no longer necessary — or viable — to make sustainability an organizational silo. As with diversity and inclusion, it is not something to be merely assigned to a devoted department, or a special event or product range. It should be embedded within every department and every product.

Language in turn, should be used to create a context that allows us to shift from explicit othering of sustainability to implicit integration.

For example, it’s not as necessary to say you have a circular policy in place if you clearly provide resources and services that help consumers or clients keep their products in use for longer. The more self-evident the measures are, the more they are absorbed as a norm and not an exception. Equally, we can’t prescribe good behaviors if we don’t work to enable them.

Progress over pledges

The work is not easy, and it is for all of us to do. But being open about the challenges we face in institutionalizing sustainability also makes it easier for everyone to understand the ecosystem that needs to be in place to support change.

Ultimately, this article is not a hack to sounding sincere. This is an appeal to individuals, companies, and institutions to do the work that makes them sincere. It’s always going to be more compelling to see incremental improvement than simply hear big promises — and that’s the story worth telling.

Head over to for a free download of our no-frills Sustainability Communication Dos + Don’ts.

Words by Gabriella Seemann, Concept Design Lead at PCH Innovations, visuals by Chiara Pozzoli. PCH Innovations is a Berlin-based, creative engineering studio for exploratory technology and innovation strategy.