20 actionable and inspiring messages from edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum

edie's award-winning Sustainability Leaders Forum saw a host of high-profile and disruptive speakers take to the stage to discuss net-zero transitions, societal needs and the necessity in redefining business purpose. Here, edie rounds up 10 key messages from the Forum.


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20 actionable and inspiring messages from edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum

Hundreds of delegates flocked to the Business Design Centre in London for the Sustainability Leaders Forum – with many more tuning in virtually across the globe. With the two days facilitating an array of high level and thought-provoking discussions across all areas of the sustainability agenda, there was a lot of advice and insight for delegates to absorb.

As such, edie has pulled out 20 key messages from the Sustainability Leaders Forum that can be used to keep sustainability professionals motivated and focused on delivering ambitious corporate targets over the coming years. Enjoy!

1) Inform, inspire and engage

Kicking off the Sustainability Leaders Forum, Jeremy Gilley, founder of Peace One Day took to the stay to deliver an energised speech on how sustainability professionals and deliver business action that supports conflict prevention and resolution and how these are interwoven with the climate crisis.

Gilley warned that “cynicism kills” and that businesses had to keep climbing the mountain in front of them in regards to combatting societal inequalities and planetary degradation. Instead of taking the cynicism to heart, Gilly claimed that sustainability professionals could “inform, inspire and engage” wider society to combat the climate crisis and deliver a world at peace.

2) Businesses back net-zero

It would appear that the audience at the Sustainability Leaders Forum are already heeding that advice about cynicism. In the same week that political tapeworm Nigel Farage launched another political campaign, this time calling for a referendum on net-zero, sustainability professionals noted that net-zero was their overall key ambition.

A survey of audience attendees showed that almost one-third (29%) felt that net-zero was the “biggest opportunity” for businesses to build a better future. Other answers included tech and innovation, the circular economy and collaboration and partnerships.

3) Reduce, remove and repair

From the three Is (well two is and one e) of Gilley’s speech to the three Rs of Sir David King’s keynote delivery next. At the Forum, Sir David King, founder and chair of the Centre for Climate Repair delivered a virtual speech for delegates.

Sir David noted that the world needed to focus on ways to “reduce, remove and repair” the planet, through emissions reductions, the protection and strengthening of natural carbon sinks and repairing the planet through measures such as marine biomass regeneration. “What sort of world are you really prepared to face?” he asked delegates, before adding that if we don’t unite to focus on the solutions then, “quite frankly, we’re cooked”.

4) Empowering women is the way to peace

Sticking with Sir David for message number four, which is how key diversity is to delivering climate solutions. Sir David, speaking on International Women’s Day, noted that women across the globe needed to be empowered to act on the climate crisis, claiming it would “deliver a better world for all of us”.

edie is doing its best to empower women in energy and sustainability. As well as putting on its most diverse Forum to date, the editorial team has marked International Women’s Day with three exclusive interviews with women in the energy sector on the latest podcast episode.

5) Progress is like making a sculpture

One of the key themes across many of the breakout discussions at the Forum was how to progress against ambitious sustainability targets. The old adage goes “don’t let perfection be the enemy of progress” but actually starting out on a sustainability journey that builds towards stretching targets can be a complex case of where to start.

During a virtual roundtable discussion on Scope 3 emissions – still one of the most problematic areas for sustainability professionals – one delegate noted that emissions calculating is like sculpting, and that it “starts with the rough outline before you chisel away and improve over time”. So for those wondering where to start on their sustainability journey, a first step will likely unveil the next.

6) What is your purpose when your back is against the wall?

During a morning panel discussion, Natalie Campbell, the chief executive of drink business Belu, outlined what purpose should ideally look like for a business. Campbell claimed that purpose involved “leading with the heart” and that if your default and legal position is to deliver profits for shareholders then it may not be aligned with the needs of today.

“What is your purpose when your back is against the wall?” Campbell asked delegates, claiming that when times are tough, businesses are likely to default on their main aims. Whether that’s profits over the planet is a key question to find out.

7) A whole planet retrofit is needed

During that same panel discussion, Harriet Lamb, the chief executive of climate change charity Ashden, noted that businesses needed to look outside of carbon as a means of showing they are focusing on more than just profits.

Lamb noted that a “whole planet retrofit” was required, one that tackles societal inequalities and suffering as well as the planetary issues that carbon reductions aim to address. This point was supported by Steve Kenzie, executive director of the UN Global Compact Network UK, who felt that businesses could turn to the Sustainable Development Goals to ensure they are performing against a wider range of pressing issues.

8) No business is immune

Kenzie also issued a rallying cry for all business-orientated delegates. Every business is currently operating in a failing economic system and relying on a deteriorating planet for its products and services.

As such, Kenzie claimed that no business, no matter how small, would be immune from the climate agenda. It was outlined that your scope 1 and 2 emissions were likely to be someone else’s Scope 3 and only collective action would deliver long-lasting change.

9) Equity can be the answer

The links between nature and wellbeing are well-versed, yet remain questionably unexplored in terms of responding to the mega and macro-trends facing the planet and society. During a biodiversity themed discussion, Forum chair Solitaire Townsend noted that nature can play a key role in addressing an array of solutions.

“Equity is the answer to so much of what we face globally – to so many of the world’s wicked problems,” Townsend said. “We sometimes find difficulty in coordinating a response. But, actually, nature tends to sit at the centre of venn diagrams of these issues and their solutions. It is a major solution.”

10) A positive mindset shift is required

During that same conversation Akanksha Khatri, head of Nature Action Agenda at the World Economic Forum (WEF) outlined how many businesses look at the ecological and climate breakdowns through the lens of risk. This, in turn, leaves out a thought process of how solutions and opportunities can emerge by combatting these crises.

“Of course, we need conservation and restoration outcomes,” Khatri said. “This has to be at the very centre of the way we design our economy. What catches the attention of businesses is, firstly, risks – where they will not be able to make money. Secondly, it is the positive statements around opportunities.”

“If we move away from business-as-usual and onto a nature-positive economic pathway, we create $10.1trn of business opportunity and 395 million jobs. We need to shift our mindset – investing in nature does not have to be an expenditure item, it can be a way to unlock new business models.”

DAY TWO

11) Retrofit your purpose

During the B Corp breakfast briefing, businesses sat down to discuss how to embed purpose into an organisation in a way that delivers transformational change.

During the discussion, Sipsmiths’ chief executive Sam Galsworthy noted that his firm had adopted a “kaizen” mindset, which translates from Japanese to mean continuous improvement. Galsworthy claimed that they were breaking down big complex challenges into tangible steps to progress against some difficult challenges.

Galsworthy noted that they decided to “retrofit” their purpose. The organisation knew that they faced some difficult challenges in terms of switching to stakeholder capitalism, but that “what waited on the other side” was absolutely worth it.

12) The four As

During the morning keynote, Maria Mendiluce, chief executive of the We Mean Business coalition noted that organisations needed to champion the “four As” of corporate responsibility: ambition, action, advocate and accountability.

Mendiluce noted that businesses need to “raise their voice” and that the power of unity in terms of corporates using their leverage to call for unified change was unparalleled in terms of changing the landscape for sustainable actions.

“We did it in Paris, we did it in Glasgow and I hope we can do it again now, during these challenging times,”  Mendiluce said.

13) The three Rs

Following on from Mendiluce’s speech was another keynote, this time from Volans founder and revered sustainability commentator John Elkington. Elkington noted that businesses were undergoing an economic transformation based on three distinct and evolutionary “Rs” – responsibility, resiliency and regeneration

With businesses facing pressure from regulators, investors, consumers and their own staff to respond to the climate crisis, Mendiluce has shared her thoughts on what true leadership looks like through an interview with edie. Read that here.

14) Convenience is still key

Despite the growing awareness of the climate crisis and a perceived increase in willingness from consumers to align themselves with sustainable brands, a key message that emerged across the forum was how the value of a product or service had to be coupled with its convenience.

“Something has to be convenient, accessible, and value-driven.” Jo-Ann Chidley, founder, Beauty Kitchen said during a workshop. “If you have those three things people generally want to be good people.” It remains clear that businesses have a key role in reducing barriers to improve uptake in sustainable practices amongst consumers and suppliers.

15) The reinvention of “re”

On the subject of consumer-facing issues, Gaelle Le Gelard, Food circular design project manager, at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation echoed that words from John Elkington that there was power in words starting with “re”.

For products, reuse, repair refurbish, recycle and even regenerate were all key aspects of a sustainable proposition that could help build back planetary degradation.

16) Stay occupied by your mission

Throughout the Forum, many speakers reflected on the external issues that are causing distress – both physically and mentally – to the planet’s population. From the Russian invasion of Ukraine to the anguish and anxiety caused by landmark climate warnings from the IPCC, it is easy for people to get trapped “doomscrolling” through social media, as Solitaire Townsend put it.

But, the Forum acted as a reminder that there are many out there focused on solutions and action, and that it was important to remain “occupied” by your brand’s mission and your own personal mission. Perhaps these are now at odds with each other, at this point, it is time to reflect on external factors and make decisions that keep you invigorated, it was argued.

17) We’re in an era of great transformation

edie hosted an inspirational panel on the morning of day two at the Forum, allowing for the next generation of sustainability leaders to have their say on how businesses need to change. During the discussion Aliza Ayaz noted that the pandemic had kickstarted a new way of thinking – and one that could enable radical change.

“We’re in the middle of a great transformation,” Ayaz said. “The pandemic has disrupted things we’ve taken for granted and given us an opportunity to build back better on more sustainable systems. The urgency and need for real ambition has shifted. Businesses can step up, partner and innovate. We need to keep businesses accountable and make sure they’re driving real change…. the very essence of accountability starts with the company itself.”

You can read more from Aliza in our recent exclusive interview.

18) Don’t forget the ‘just’ transition

During that same discussion, Chess Fearnley, co-founder of BOSH, noted the importance of businesses championing a just transition to bring all parts of society on the low-carbon journey, including an adding benefit that it could bring.

“We have a responsibility as leaders to show others what Is possible,” Fearnley said. “This starts with the diversity of a business.” Fearnley also noted that better diversity representation could create a new set of role models that inspired parts of society to act.

19) Influence can come from unestablished places

It can sometimes feel like sustainability professionals are swimming against the tide when it comes to climate action, but speakers across both days of the Forum pointed out that there is much more desire to understand and act on the climate crisis, but some people may lack the resources.

Magali Anderson, chief sustainability and Forum chair Solitaire Townsend discussed internal and boardroom engagement during Day Two, with Townsend reiterating a comment that “we don’t need a politician or chief executive to tell us how to think”.

The majority of people want to do good, it was summarised, they just don’t know how, or don’t have the expertise. Indeed, many senior level executives were feeling this change at home, through children asking key questions. Anderson noted that “today’s decision-makers are parents, they have children who can be part of a huge movement, they are way more powerful than the messages we can share”.

20) Capitalism needs to evolve

During the final keynote speech of the Forum, climate activist Lily Cole offered her thoughts as to whether capitalism was still a viable option for a planet wrecked with societal and ecological issues.

Cole states that capitalism needed to “evolve” if it was to survive these existential threats to society, noting that the economic collapse caused by Covid-19 was a “small window” into what would happen as a result of the climate crisis.

“The legal purpose of business needs to change,” Cole noted. “We need a new legal norm, rather than the current voluntary movement.”

You can catch up on all the goings-on at the Sustainability Leaders Forum with edie’s live blog, here. 

Matt Mace

© Faversham House Ltd 2022 edie news articles may be copied or forwarded for individual use only. No other reproduction or distribution is permitted without prior written consent.

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