What makes a company tweet about deforestation?

Insight / 8 Feb 2022

There is a growing sense of urgency driven by civil society and consumers for companies and financial institutions to deliver on their environmental commitments.

To track what brands are saying on key environmental and social issues, Forest 500 and the Climate and Land Use Alliances’ Food Nature Climate Dialogue have developed a new social listening accountability tool.

In 2014, some of the world’s largest companies endorsed the New York Declaration on Forests, a declaration calling for the halt of natural forest loss by 2020. Since 2014, and in response to the NYDF, Forest 500 has released its annual ranking of the 500 most influential companies driving tropical deforestation, and the financial institutions that fund them, on the strength and progress of their deforestation commitments.

However, since 2014, deforestation has continued and the 2020 deadline was missed. At COP26, companies and financial institutions committed to new 2025 and 2030 deadlines for deforestation. With these dates fast approaching, increased accountability on company and finance sector progress is paramount.

Our new analysis builds on the findings of the annual Forest 500 report with historical and real-time insights based on companies and financial institutions’ social media activity. This insight series explores how Forest 500 companies use Twitter to highlight their environmental and social activity.

Leading up to the decade of action (2020-2030)

Forest 500 analysed Twitter data to assess which companies have been most active in talking about deforestation and progress towards commitments since signing the NYDF in September 2014. We analysed tweets between October 2014 and 2021 from the 25 companies that are assessed as part of the Forest 500 and are also signatories of the New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF).

25 companies are both signatories to the New York Declaration on Forests and also assessed as part of the Forest 500

We found three quarters have mentioned deforestation in their Twitter marketing since 2014.

The proportion of deforestation-related content is relatively small. Since October 2014, this group of companies, which have made an explicit commitment to end deforestation by 2020, shared a total of 17,103 tweets related to environmental or social issues. But, only four per cent of these tweets mentioned “deforestation” and over 60 per cent of these tweets were shared by just three companies.

Volume of tweets mentioning deforestation from the 25 companies that are assessed as part of the Forest 500 and are also signatories of the NYDF between October 2014 and 2021

On a yearly basis, a small flurry of tweets emerged on 21 March to mark International Day of Forests but one peak moment when “deforestation” was mentioned occurred in February 2017 led by Cargill.

The peak arose during heightened media attention on deforestation. In February 2017, increases in deforestation in the Amazon made headline news in a New York Times piece linking Cargill to land clearance in Latin America despite their commitment to the NYDF. In response, Cargill shared a reactive tweet outlining their deforestation commitment and linked to the commitment on their website. In the days following the New York Times article, Cargill sent over 70 replies to concerned Twitter users who shared the article.

Example Twitter exchange

A second peak occurred in April 2019, driven by a press release from Nestlé, in partnership with Airbus and Earthworm foundation announcing that 77% of Nestlé’s agricultural commodities were verified deforestation-free. The main tweet sharing the announcement gained 162 retweets and 17 replies, a mix of both positive and critical responses. When compared with the previous peak, the sentiment was generally more positive.

Overall, Golden-Agri Sinar Mas (@GAR_sinarmas), one of the world’s leading palm oil companies, emerged as the most active Twitter profile to mention topics related to deforestation during the timeframe for analysis. Although the company consistently tweets about deforestation, irrelevant of the news cycle, the message tends to be one way, repetitive and receives low engagement. The company tends to link to their palm oil Indonesia factsheet, which seems to no longer be available.

Example of @GAR_sinarmas tweets repeating message with little engagement to promote the company’s palm oil factsheet

Why brands use Twitter

Twitter has helped modernise marketing from a one-way communication stream to an open dialogue where the customer can choose to share, like or reply to a company immediately. Twitter has been a pivotal platform in the rise of environmental activism among brands, with 8 in 10 people believing brands are in a position to affect positive change.

Twitter presents an opportunity for brands to be transparent and open up dialogues with their consumers on progress towards environmental and social commitments. Research has shown that consumers who hold positive views of a company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) are more likely to purchase from a company, as well as demonstrate long-term loyalty. Further, an analysis of Fortune 500 companies showed that brands with stronger CSR marketing content received a higher level of engagement (retweets, mentions and replies) helping to drive increased positive brand awareness and user-generated marketing.

Reputational risk

Companies can be hesitant to be transparent and open themselves up to public discussions about sustainability on Twitter. But, by choosing to stay silent on Twitter, a brand can still leave itself open to reputational risk and accusations of poor performance or greenwashing which can spread exponentially quickly on platforms like Twitter. The conversational nature of the social media channel means brands can be asked directly by any customer about their environmental or social commitments at any time. Research shows that when questioned, most brands choose to remain silent or offer stock responses, suggesting that companies shy away from criticism rather than engaging and taking the opportunity to be transparent.

An untapped opportunity

Our Twitter analysis finds that historically, Forest 500 NYDF signatory companies have opted to talk about deforestation reactively in response to negative news, with only Nestlé taking the proactive approach. By employing a reactive approach to negative media coverage or a tokenistic strategy in response to UN days, companies are missing an opportunity to build trust and loyalty with their consumers. At a time when consumer calls for transparency are louder than ever, companies can choose to remain silent risking exposure or accusations of greenwash or alternatively, be transparent and engage with consumers on their sustainability and deforestation efforts.

Transparency is not a cure-all, particularly if progress is poor. But when companies can communicate transparently on purpose and progress, research shows trust in that purpose can pay off and ultimately, lead to loyalty and purchase.

For the full picture of how the most influential companies and financial institutions driving tropical deforestation are performing against their deforestation commitments, read our latest Forest 500 report here.

You can also find the methodology for the social media analysis.

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