Truthful Storytelling: Getting Real About Sustainability Messaging

Episode 269

January 9, 2024

Lauren Scott of Acuity Brands and host of The Resilience Report is on the show this week giving us some significant insights into how the landscape of sustainability is evolving. We cover the new regulations and guidelines that are coming into effect as well as the need to ditch greenwashing and get into the real impact that our sustainable practices are having. Plus, Lauren sneaks in a nod to Arnold Schwarzenegger in the episode, not an easy feat! Lauren is immensely knowledgeable in this field, you are going to want a pen and paper close by for this one.

Truthful Storytelling: Getting Real About Sustainability Messaging Transcript:

Announcer: You’re listening to The Kula Ring, a podcast made for manufacturing marketers. Here are Carman Pirie and Jeff White. 

Jeff White: Welcome to The Kula Ring, a podcast for manufacturing marketers brought to you by Kula Partners. My name is Jeff White. Joining me today, as always, is Carman Pirie, Carman how you doing mate? 

Carman Pirie: I am delighted to be here. How are you doing? 

Jeff White: Doing great. Doing great. Recording on a Friday. Lovely day. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah, exactly. I’m excited for today’s conversation because I think anytime we can bring some really solid practical advice and experience to our listeners around how they ought to be thinking about marketing today and messaging these days, I would say, you know, anytime we can put some meat on that bone I like the opportunity to do so. And of course one of the intersections to, you know, so many manufacturers are dealing with now, yes they actually have a products and services that they’re going to market with, etc.. But is that sustainability lens and and I know we’ve talked about it a fair bit on the show from from from a number of perspectives, but essentially we’ve never had someone on the show quite as smart as today’s guest.

Jeff White: I don’t want to run the risk of like offending previous guests who are also very smart, who just like to note that, but…

Carman Pirie: yeah, that’s true. I’m just hoping that they’re not listening to today’s episode. I mean. 

Jeff White: I don’t know, man. It’s pretty wide net. But joining us today is Lauren Scott, and Lauren is the VP of marketing sustainability at Acuity Brands. Welcome to The Kula Ring, Lauren. 

Lauren Scott: Thanks so much for having me on. That’s quite the introduction. 

Carman Pirie: Lauren it’s awesome to have you on the show. And look let’s just kick it off with giving our listeners a bit more of a understanding of of who you are and how you ended up at Acuity, and maybe tell us a bit about the company as well.

Lauren Scott: Sure. So my name is Lauren Scott. I’m up here in Montreal and I usually say up here because most of the time I am dealing with my colleagues down in the U.S. So I’m up in Montreal, Canada. I started in the clean tech space about a decade ago, and prior to that I had, you know, pure marketing, academic, academic background in the sense that I studied business and specifically marketing at the time. And when I was wrapping up my education or even the last couple of years, I had the chance to work in a marketing agency and really did love the storytelling aspect of that and appreciated having the opportunity, but knew that long term I was always going to be somebody who worked 110% and wanted to align with an organization that was in line with my values. And I actually stepped away from the marketing world for a couple of years in the classic sense and worked in the nonprofit sector. But I still had this kind of tugging at my heart that I wanted to end up back in the environmental space. And so a decade ago, I did enter the clean tech world, if you will, by joining a company at the time that was in Quebec called the Distech Controls. And they really specialize in making buildings more energy efficient through your HVAC and lighting and shade controls and so really making that space more energy efficient. And I was leading their communications and public relations at the time. It was really, I guess, the sweetheart of Quebec at the time is a great success story from a small startup. And a few years later we we got acquired by Acuity Brands. And so Acuity Brands, for those who don’t know, it is actually the largest lighting and lighting controls manufacturer in North America. And they go to market with a bunch of different brands, which is maybe why not everybody’s familiar with the name Acuity, but they were looking to get more into the industrial manufacturing space, and so they acquired Distech Controls really for our technology and have had the opportunity to grow with the organization since then. Admittedly, right after the acquisition, I think I missed some of the the messy post acquisition parts that are very natural and I stepped away for about a year and a half and worked in the renewable energy space. So continuing with the sustainability theme for a wind energy company coming to Canada and helping them with their communications. But I really miss the culture of Distech Controls and came back to the company in 2017 to lead their overall marketing. And then about two and a half years ago, I took on the broader role with the Intelligent Spaces Group. So Acuity has two business segments. The first is really with that lighting and lighting control side. And then the other side is this Intelligent Spaces Group. And so we focus on the software sensors and controls versus the lighting to make the spaces really smarter, safer and greener.

Carman Pirie: You know, if somebody does have if you’re a marketer that has an interest really in kind of more environmentally progressive marketing is something that I don’t think a lot of people maybe think of early in their career or what have you. But you know, marketing in the built environment space really doesn’t give you that opportunity. It seems to me that that and I guess maybe I’m biased. I used to be affiliated with Hayworth the contract furniture manufacturer, so it always struck me that they seemed to be pretty early to the party. 

Lauren Scott: Yeah, well, it is interesting. I mean, admittedly, when I was studying and I knew I wanted to end up in sustainability, somehow the built space is not what came top of mind for me. I think especially in the media right now, we often see things like the automotive industry or even fashion. You know, the automotive industry I think is responsible for 23% of global emissions, and yet the build space is 28%. So it’s not maybe such a great thing to be a bigger part of the problem, but it means there’s a bigger space for opportunity for manufacturers, for sure. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah, that means you can be a bigger part of the solution too. Doesn’t it? 

Lauren Scott: Absolutely. Absolutely. 

Jeff White: I think the other thing too, is that, you know, when you’re talking about career paths for somebody who’s interested in sustainability and you know, and the environment, you could do a lot worse than B2B manufacturing writ large. I mean, there are so many opportunities for companies that really want to become more sustainable, want to talk about it in a sustainable way and want to be leaders there and don’t necessarily have the marketing horsepower people with the chutzpah of of, you know, to kind of bring that message and that passion to life for them.

Lauren Scott: Yeah, it’s been interesting to see with with, you know, our industry overall and certainly with our partners that marketing still does not necessarily have a huge space. But I do see that changing, especially as the lines blur for all industries between B2B and having that closer proximity, I’d say, to B2C. So certainly stepping up the role of marketing within the space. And so that’s been interesting to see that evolution even over the last decade. 

Carman Pirie: I think we would be remiss, Lauren, if we didn’t mention in the somewhat close to your introduction that you were also the host of a podcast. Yes? 

Lauren Scott: Yes, I am. I host, The Resilience Report. And so I had launched that less than a year ago. So certainly have a ton of respect for the two of you have been in a space far longer and it was really an outside passion projects and not at all formally linked, at least to what I do, but I just felt like there was this there’s so much negativity and heaviness, I would say in terms of the classic media and how we’re talking about sustainability. And I really just saw how I respond when I see innovations in the space, and it just inspires me to recommit to the work on a regular basis, even when sometimes the landscape can seem a little bit heavy. And so I just wanted to highlight the work of the entrepreneurs or the ecopreneurs, as I call them, and the leaders within their own respective businesses who are trying to have a positive environmental impact through their work.

Jeff White: I honestly didn’t bring it up. I thought it would be obvious just by the quality of your audio to our listeners.

Lauren Scott:  It’s all about that mic. 

Carman Pirie: I guess that’s a great segway, Lauren, I’d love to learn about, what are the, the innovations that you’re seeing and how people are communicating their sustainability commitments? Because you know, an awful lot of it, I guess to start to sound the same and it sounds a lot like it’s an application of some green wall paper on the background of business messaging. And I guess what are you seeing that’s getting you excited and makes you think that there’s maybe hope for a better way? 

Lauren Scott: I think it’s probably twofold. Certainly the innovation from the podcast itself, I’ve just been so amazed to see all of the different angles. You know, my background was just within the built space and as well as with renewable energy. And so certainly leveraging some of those stories, but kind of actually like your own podcast, I’ve had some interesting conversations from a packaging standpoint, so I’m sure that’s not news to the two of you, but also, for example, a company that specializes in recycle, recycling or upcycling plastic at an industrial level. We’ve had things from fashion where all these different angles that you don’t necessarily think of, and it just keeps on growing in terms of that outreach. But certainly you’re right in terms of the messaging, and I think this is an area that we’re all going to have to probably pay more attention to, especially as marketers, is we do know that the landscape right now is changing, much like with all regulations around sustainability. It’s going to impact us as marketers as well. So I would say the biggest area that most of us are focusing on and I would definitely invite your listeners to check out a little bit more is every ten years the Federal Trade Commission updates their guides. So whatever the topic is, they tend to be on that once a decade pattern. And over the past year they’ve opened up what they called their green guides and these are really the guidelines for advertisers in terms of how we can speak about sustainability, this is nothing new. They do this every ten years, but it definitely feels like an important moment in time. I think, just from the sheer magnitude of companies talking about sustainability. But what else is really interesting as they opened it up to public comments to get the feedback before the update, these Green guides. So the three main areas that came out of this conversation are sorry, out of this request for feedback was they were asking a lot of questions around the terms of recycled contents recyclable and carbon offsets. So these are certainly three terms we see a lot of. So it’s probably safe to assume that the updates that they’re going to be looking at will probably include guidelines around those three terms. And they were also asking for right now, these are just guidelines. So they were asking, should these become actual rules that can actually be followed up at a federal level? So that could have a very different impact. In terms of the implications. 

Carman Pirie: I think, for, you know, for marketers who are maybe a little more used to obsessing over a pending Google algorithm update, you know, this is yeah, this is maybe think about this in a bit of an oddly similar way. It doesn’t happen nearly as often, but it can make a significant change in your business.

Jeff White: It’s almost regulatory. 

Carman Pirie:  Well this is  regulatory really. And I mean, and you mentioned Lauren, it remains to be seen to what extent there will be kind of things being enforced out of this. But, you know, this we’ve already seen legal implications in the US, haven’t we, of of kind of offending green, green clean guidelines. 

Lauren Scott: Yeah, there have been some big names. One great example of your listeners want to look up further is with Delta Airlines and just were they painting in two broad strokes when they were talking about certain things like link to carbon neutrality. So there are certain terms that are a little bit vague and this is just part of any transition period. And we’re definitely in a transition period, I would say, for sustainability overall. So I’d say for most companies it’s probably not out of ill intent that any of this is done. I really just think that all of us are trying to figure it out along the way. And what has happened is that there have been certain lawsuits in terms of what messaging is being used and whether or not this would be falling into the greenwashing area. So the main ideas, whether it’s the green guides or at an international level, if people want to look it up, it is the International Chamber of Commerce that has a framework for responsible environmental marketing, communications and a little bit of a mouthful, but there’s also in Canada, we have the competitions, the competition bureaus, environmental claims and greenwashing. So you can research all of them. But basically at the end of the day, they just really want to ensure that what we are saying is truthful and not misleading. And they’re asking us to be very specific and precise and to avoid fake claims as much as possible. And then really, for example, if you’re saying your product is helping save 15% on energy bills, you need to be able to back up those claims and document them and make sure that the methodology is really repeatable. So they have really clear, good intention, I think, between this change in guidelines. But it’s definitely going to put additional pressure on marketers and advertisers to make sure that our messaging is done correctly. 

Carman Pirie: One of the, I guess, kind of edges I see in all of this in talking to a wide range of marketers who, you know, work in many different types of manufacturing, it seems to me like the as the threat of the lawsuit diminishes, which is kind of as as you get further and further away from dealing with consumers who could and are more likely to maybe action a class action lawsuit like the Delta one that you mentioned. It feels to me like, like most manufacturers get more comfortable with being a little bit more fast and loose with their environment. Have you, have you found that? Like almost like the more straight up B2B, somebody is the more disconnected they are a little bit from from consumer, from the consumer side of things. It feels to me like they’re often a little bit more comfortable, not always having to back up those claims.

Lauren Scott: Yeah, that’s an interesting observation and I would echo that, I probably have seen some of that as well. Just as a general trend. It might also just be that we work less historically with our legal teams. I think that this is really going to lead to a transition where we can’t have our teams be siloed and really have the full legal team working with a full marketing team, even if it’s just an educational piece internally as to the direction going forward, I think, for example, you would have historically seen legal teams working with the finance team for your end of year reporting. Well, much like that, we’re now going to have to do our end of year ESG reporting. And so it is really just working hand in hand and probably certain industries have had to face the music a little bit sooner rather than others. For example, Acuity Brands is a publicly traded company, so we’re very mindful as to how we take these steps. And so it is working hand-in-hand with our legal team to make sure that we are complying to these different areas and learning. Everybody is learning as we go along and certainly with the green guides being updated over the next year or so, I’m sure that will further guide us as to what we can and cannot do.

Carman Pirie: I don’t know what you think, Jeff. I see some parallels oddly with accessibility with the A.D.A. 

Jeff White: Yeah, if we are forced to do it? Yeah. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. Or the threat of lawsuits. You know, a lot of even larger industrial manufacturers would look at it and, you know, nobody’s going to sue us because our website isn’t accessible. We’re not Amazon, you know.

Jeff White: Yeah, but I do think you got to, you know the the stick is only so useful, you know in a lot of ways some of this needs to be kind of carrot oriented. 

Carman Pirie: Well, as Lauren mentioned the commitments to ESG, etc., certainly are becoming much, much more a feature of of corporate life. People like, it’s not going away. It’s only going to become more important so…

Lauren Scott: And I think one area there, too, that is maybe a bit more of the carrot side is at the end of the day, as marketers, we can create and instill a sense of trust from our customers, then that’s only going to help us further create those relationships. I certainly see, even amongst friends and family, that they’re a little bit leery about any sustainability claims. Even though I’m deep in the space and they’re asking me regularly, what does this certification mean or what does this mean? Because there is so much greenwashing. And I think that people just have felt like they cannot rely on claims like eco friendly or things like that anymore. They really want to make sure that it’s as clear as possible. And so hopefully that the carrot side of that is that we’re going to be creating closer relationships with our customers and that they know that they can rely on us for providing truthful, not misleading information about our efforts. 

Carman Pirie: Knocks on the door of something kind of interesting to me here on in just thinking that, you know, you talk about the kind of our desensitization to environmental messaging, even that we experience as consumers, and we start to kind of question if this is really, you know, is this really just legit, can believe it or not. And if we feel that as a consumer, my goodness, building owners and facilities managers, they must feel that because almost everybody that’s trying to market to them is talking about an environmental angle. How have you stood out there? How do you how do you not just fall into the sea of sameness in there? 

Lauren Scott: Certainly, walking the talk has been important. So for decades we’ve sold products that help make spaces more energy efficient, whether it’s on the lighting side and helping the built space transition over to LED lighting or if it’s through building controls like what we have on the intelligence basis side or even our software tools that we have in cloud applications. The products have helped with the sustainability lens and helping our customers be more energy efficient. But what we’re seeing now is that customers want and these are business customers, those end customers, our channel partners, want to make sure that from an operational standpoint, we’re also being sustainable. So as a manufacturer, we are figuring out ways to make our manufacturing facilities as energy efficient as possible. We are thinking about how we select and evaluate our suppliers. We are thinking about our waste management. And so there’s different tools that those customers are using now. For example, we’re seeing this more like a lot of things linked to sustainability, maybe moving a little bit faster in Europe. And so there is one evaluation mechanism out there called Ecovadis if people want to research it. It’s a very lengthy process, but as a supplier you fill out all of your information as it pertains to sustainability and then any company that is signed up with Ecovadis can then go check out their suppliers on this evaluation grid and see how they’re performing on all of these different sustainability areas. So it’s helping kind of benchmark how they’re choosing their suppliers to the point where we’ve seen some large customers actually say right now in 2023 we are choosing suppliers that have a score of X and above, but next year we are going to be moving that benchmark up even further. So if you are falling off them, we will no longer turn to you as kind of that’s preferred supplier.

Jeff White: I guess that kind of third party validation really plays into this quite a lot in terms of ensuring that the messaging aligns with the actual experience. 

Lauren Scott: Yeah, and it’s not easy. I mean, the fact that this is all so new too, is that there is no one third party much like all these different we call it like the alphabet soup of sustainability. There’s all these different benchmarks that we can leverage. And so there’s certainly an international effort to try and harmonize because those in the sustainability space, who are really trying to move it forward fully recognize that by having so many different options and lack of clarity that it’s just slowing down progress. So I think that’s going to be a big thing that we’re going to see and certainly even from the marketing guidelines, I know that a lot of marketers and advertisers are hoping to see that kind of harmonization over the next decade. 

Carman Pirie: I mean, I think as you you know, as we go through this conversation, it’s kind of there’s a general trajectory around the sustainability conversation and what’s happening here. Obviously, as climate change become, you know, some head scratching, that it could be more important than it is today. And that needs to be so incredibly important to us. But I guess there’s generally tends to be a trajectory we can imagine this following. What’s the biggest question mark in your mind? Like, what’s your what are you sitting there thinking, You know what, I just don’t know how this is going to shake out and this would impact what I do.

Lauren Scott: It’s been really interesting navigating different geographic markets as it pertains to the theme of sustainability. I would have to say it’s interesting, the vast majority of our business is in the United States and the term sustainability and even ESG has become very polarized. And so I am very curious to see how we come through with this idea that it has become polarized or politicized and full transparency. That is a large degree. Why I also created the podcast was I do think there is a need for a long form dialog when it comes to conversations and topics that do polarize. And so we need to be having these conversations because at the end of the day, what we’re seeing is when we’re able to have a full conversation with even, you know, with your left or right and you talk about reducing energy costs and reshoring labor, that sort of thing, most people can really get behind that. It’s just maybe coming from very different angles. So it’s just important that we’re able to have these platforms to have long form conversations to get to the root of what we’re all trying to accomplish. And I think that’s really going to be an important part as marketers as to how we navigate such an important, sensitive topic over the next few years.

Jeff White: Language has a really interesting role to play here, and the words that you choose obviously are incredibly important. But I think in a lot of the context of climate change and and large global issues like that, some of the language that’s been chosen by default by those sort of defining the problem or defining the the idea not necessarily accessible to the layperson or even some people who, you know, with a more advanced understanding of these things like carbon offsets and and, you know, carbon neutrality and even global warming, they’re almost like words that were designed to obfuscate the actual problem at how do you as a you know, as a communicator, as a person who’s deeply interested in this, how do you kind of choose how to talk about these things and and position acuity in a place where a lot of people are just trying to kind of not pull the wool over people’s eyes, but definitely obfuscate or and slightly confuse them? 

Lauren Scott: Maybe two pieces to that. And one, I’ve been really lucky and actually just ended my term, but for the past six years I’ve sat on the board of directors of Sierra Club Canada Foundation, and these are folks who have been so deep in the environmental space for decades and decades and decades. It’s really humbling to sit in meetings with lawyers and scientists who have been, dedicated their entire careers to sustainability, especially since we’re only seeing the shift, I would say, in the business space, a real interest in the business space over the past five years or so. In doing so, and I bring this up, is I realize how important it is to be able to carry the conversations that have been happening for decades by those people dedicated to the sustainability movement, perhaps more in the nonprofit or even governmental space, and bringing in the language skills and the positioning that only business can really bring or more traditionally bring. So it’s this ability to bridge the gap between the message to your point that has, clearly has not landed that well or hasn’t been that accessible over the past, let’s say 40 to 50 years, and trying to make it in a way that it is still meaningful. We want to make sure that businesses and this is definitely concern that businesses are not just greenwashing. So I think it’s kind of marrying the two of that deep experience, but then also the ability on the business side to be able to package this up in a way that’s digestible for the average person. 

Carman Pirie: That, of course, intertwined with your earlier point around the politicization of the topic. And, you know, that creates some kind of sometimes it creates a blindness to some things because people are this turn off the mind when they hear certain certain terms or phrases. I hadn’t really I mean, and this my mind’s spinning on the notion of how it how it’s kind of being combined with people going in, talking about, oh, so such a such a company or organization as this term kills me. They’re all in on woke. You know, the right wing commentators or what have you. Oh, they’re all in on woke. And that means that they know that climate change gets lumped in with transgender issues, like in one fell swoop. It’s like it’s all one thing there. And that is a really interesting challenge. And in some way it reminds me of businesses know of a certain reality and then the politicians know of a different reality. We’ve seen that with when it comes to manufacturing jobs in the US, politicians talk about it as though the factory worker of 1950 is going to return. Every manufacturer knows that that’s not what we’re talking about, talking about reshoring manufacturing. So there’s this weird dissonance between reality and where the politics and overall narrative in our world these days is driving us. 

Lauren Scott: I heard I was listening to a podcast recently, actually, it was one of my favorite, which is Rich Roll, and he was interviewing of all people, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and he was asking him how he balanced that deep focus on the environmental side as a Republican, which is not necessarily that two pieces that you would think of coming together. And he did say that it is so important to consider messaging and he was saying that what was was not resonating with his voters was the idea or the topic or the wording of climate change. However, the wording that was landing was this idea of fighting pollution. And he was saying by framing it that way, he was able to rally a group that really genuinely cared about fighting pollution, but just cared about it when it didn’t feel so polarized with certain terminology. And whether it’s good or bad, I think it’s the reality. And if we can get more people from across the line together to really have a positive environmental and by extension even social impact, I think that’s going to be the most important thing.

Jeff White: Did  anybody in the eighties have Arnold Schwarzenegger on their bingo card as the voice of  reason for so many topics. I didn’t. I just I just like the Terminator. 

Lauren Scott: It’s it’s really an interesting interview if you want to if you want to check that out, I would really recommend it. And it was very eye opening, your ear opening conversation.

Carman Pirie: It is always nice when people surprise you, isn’t it? I will say this, however, this conversation was no surprise that it was informative and incredibly helpful. Lauren, it’s been wonderful to have you on the show. Thank you so much for sharing your your experience and insight. You’ve given us a lot to think about. 

Lauren Scott: Thank you very much for having me on. I really appreciated it.

 Jeff White: Us as well. Cheers. 

Announcer: Thanks for listening to The Kula Ring with Carman Pirie and Jeff White. Don’t miss a single manufacturing marketing insight. Subscribe now at that’s K-U-L-A

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Lauren Scott Headshot


Lauren Scott

VP of Marketing & Sustainability at Acuity Brands

Lauren Scott is the Vice President of Marketing & Sustainability at Acuity Brands’ Intelligent Spaces Group. Scott specializes in translating climate initiatives into meaningful action to deliver on commitments to the building and renewables sectors. Her marketing and communications background is leveraged to promote social and environmental responsibility as an approachable, yet critical part of business operations.
At the beginning of her career, Scott got her start in marketing at a Montreal-based media company. During this time, she was completing her B.Comm., where she founded and implemented the business school’s first student association dedicated to sustainability. She then went on to work in the non-profit sector, serving as the national spokesperson for an international animal welfare organization, before becoming the communications manager for two of Canada’s largest cancer fundraising events. This was followed by managing the PR/communications for a hyper-growth cleantech start-up; before taking on the Canadian Communications Advisor role for a market-leading wind turbine manufacturer. Prior to her current role, Scott served as Marketing Director at Distech Controls, a subsidiary of Acuity Brands and an international innovator in the intelligent building space.
Scott’s career has been marked by being named one of Montreal’s Top 50 Women Leaders (2022), by her nomination as a 2020 Woman of Inspiration by the Universal Women’s Network, as well as being shortlisted as Industry Woman of the Year by the ControlTrends Awards (2020). She has pursued certificates in “Reconciliation through Indigenous Education” (UBC), “The Health Effects of Climate Change” (Harvard University) and “Corporate Sustainability Management: Risk, Profit, and Purpose” (Yale School of Management). Scott’s philanthropic efforts include having served on the board of Sierra Club Canada Foundation, the Canadian arm of one of North-America’s largest environmental advocacy groups. She has held the role of the board President, has chaired the National Development Committee, and currently chairs the National Communications Committee.
Scott also hosts and produces The Resilience Report, a biweekly podcast highlighting the inspiring work of ecopreneurs and lighthouse leaders paving the way in sustainable business.

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