10 ways business leadership will evolve during a crucial decade for sustainability

Sustainability experts and thought leaders were in attendance at edie's Sustainability Leaders Forum to outline how the role of business in a society battling social and environmental crises like never before will change.

10 ways business leadership will evolve during a crucial decade for sustainability

Businesses are gearing up to redefine their purpose

The Sustainability Leaders Forum saw companies, individuals and organisations championing sustainability gathering to discuss the emergency response in transitioning to a net-zero economy.

Taking place at London’s Business Design Centre on Tuesday and Wednesday (4 & 5 February), the event garnered more than 400 attendees, with speakers including former Irish President Mary Robinson; TerraCycle CEO Tom Szaky; Firmenich CEO Gilbert Ghostine; IPCC working group chair Jim Skea and Futerra co-founder Solitaire Townsend. 

The two-day event was filled with discussions about the need to radically change business approaches to sustainability, especially over the next decade. The 2020s is a defining period for corporate climate and social action as businesses look to drive nations towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and deliver decarbonisation plans to push the planet towards net-zero emissions.

At the same time, an uprising of climate activists, more environmentally aware investors and a global unravelling of trust in politics will present fresh new challenges and opportunities for businesses to overcome.

A survey of delegates during the Forum revealed that almost one-third felt that redefining their business purpose was the biggest opportunity to igniting a decade of action, and these 10 soundbites can act as the framework to do just that. Here, edie rounds up 10 new responses that businesses will deliver to make the 2020s the decade of deliverance on climate action.

1) Deliver accountability and advocacy

During a 23-minute keynote speech Chair of The Elders and former president of Ireland Mary Robinson called on businesses to advocate for policies that would enable the creation of a “just transition” to net-zero. 

“We have to see businesses go further,” Robinson said. “Business leaders must also speak up for a regulatory environment that protects all human rights, one that holds them accountable for their actions as well. They must also be transparent and accountable about their own actions, including their roles in partnerships to implement the SDGs. Less ‘greenrinsing’, more measured accountable and transparent activity.”

2) Prepare to be led by consumers

During a discussion on edie’s Sustainable Business Covered podcast, British American Tobacco’s group head of sustainability Jennie Galbraith noted that business decisions going forward would likely be driven by consumer demands for products and services that deliver core societal or environmental purposes.

3) Strive to deliver the SDGs

Hilton Worldwide was one of the first corporates to pivot its approach to sustainability to reflect on the need to raise ambitions in order to implement the SDGs. At the Forum, the company’s corporate responsibility manager Claudia Candiotto claimed that the SDGs had delivered the firm a clear pathway of initiatives that would allow a business to contribute to a global agenda.

4) Teach your experts to become activators

Select delegates and speakers at the Forum were also invited to take part in a bespoke roundtable discussion which will be covered on the edie website in the coming weeks. During the discussion, Canary Wharf Group’s head of sustainability Martin Gettings said: “For the last 20 years, I’ve been an activist. Now, I’ve got to be an activator. Rather than banging on the door and asking, ‘can we come in’, the door is now open and we’re stumbling in, trying to find our feet and hone different skills.”

5) ‘Win’ through the value chain

Also taking part in the roundtable discussion was AB Sugar’s head of advocacy Katherine Teague. AB Sugar has launched innovation competitions as part of a drive to better manage the impact of the company’s value chain and Teague noted that all businesses needed to understand how critical value chain engagement is.

“One of the things which the climate change debate enables us to do is open a window to what’s going on in our supply chains. We’ve taken for granted a lot of the things that we use today to us successful as businesses – the environment, water, raw materials. Because we’ve taken them for granted for so long, we can’t afford to any longer. Those that understand this are going to win.”

6) Deliver change across an entire sector

Building on the theme of engaging across the value chain, Interface’s vice president and chief sustainability officer Erin Meezan suggested that more businesses would look beyond net-zero and carbon-neutral strategies, much like Interface has. During the conversation Meezan also stated that businesses would have to work on solutions that benefitted the entire sector, including competitors.

7) Use science as a ‘minimum position’

In a session titled “The road to, and beyond, net-zero: From the what to the how”, John Lewis Partnership’s partner and director for corporate responsibility, Benet Northcote, was amongst the speakers to reflect on the rapid rise of corporates setting science-based targets in recent years. Looking ahead though, Northcote suggested that aligning with science would be a minimum requirement of a responsible business.

“Science-based targets are simply a way to prove that the reduction you’re achieving is in line with what the rest of the world needs you to do to limit global warming to 1.5C,” Northcote said. “That’s a minimum position. It’s the least you should do. If you’re not doing that, then you face the temperature rising far beyond what is we perceive as normal, liveable and compatible with economic success.”

8) Tighten the circle

While net-zero has been a dominant theme for sustainable businesses over the last 12 months, the circular economy remains a critical aspect for businesses of all sizes. TerraCycle’s LOOP initiative has seen numerous large corporations take more responsibility for their packaging, while other take-back schemes account for the products themselves.

TerraCycle’s chief executive Tom Szaky was at the conference and noted how moving to reuse models wasn’t just about embracing the circular economy but improving it.

 “Is recycling and making from recycled materials enough to solve waste?” Szaky asked. “We realised that while it is critically important, it’s only an answer to the symptom of waste. We need to go one step deeper and solve waste at the root cause. I would direct anger not at a material, but at the idea of only using a material once. If you look at any circular economy diagram, the focus isn’t just on creating the circle, but tightening it. That can only be done by moving to a reuse model.”

9) Make decarbonisation a ‘just’ transition

Echoing on key points of Mary Robinson’s speech, the Fairtrade Foundation’s chief executive Michael Gidney told edie of the importance of businesses and markets delivered a “just” transition that helped workers in developing companies generate steady incomes during the low-carbon revolution.

10) Become re-carbonisers 

Having just been named as edie’s Lifetime Achievement Award-winner Jonathon Porritt, founder-director of Forum for the Future, delivered a rousing call to action to the private sector to “recarbonise” the planet by forging partnerships that pull carbon out of the atmosphere and assist with the ongoing net-zero transition. (timestamp 2:40)

“For all, we need to stop putting CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, so we have got to work unbelievably hard to get billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere by re-carbonising the earth, our forests, soils, wetlands, peat groves, mango swamps…an extraordinary portfolio of solutions, which is becoming more and more exciting.”

Matt Mace

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