Aliza Ayaz: Equity should be at the heart of business’s sustainability strategies

EXCLUSIVE: UN goodwill ambassador and climate activist Aliza Ayaz has given her thoughts on how nations and businesses can show true climate leadership, arguing that keeping promises and taking an equity-first approach is key to building trust and momentum.

Aliza Ayaz: Equity should be at the heart of business’s sustainability strategies

Ayaz will be speaking at edie's Sustainability Leaders Forum in London on 9 March

Pre-pandemic, youth climate activism was headline news most weeks and even most days. The September 2019 climate strikes were dubbed the largest of their kind to date, with workers downing tools at a scale never before seen to stand in solidarity with students. Just three months later, at least 500,000 people – mainly youth – marched in Madrid to push for progress at COP25.

When Covid-19 lockdowns came into place, the campaigning went largely digital rather than stopping altogether. But at COP26, youth leaders were able to put pressure on politicians and business leaders by standing face-to-face with them. Speeches were given to delegates by the likes of Elizabeth Wathuti, Vanessa Nakate and Txai Surui.

Also addressing leaders was Aliza Ayaz – the UN’s goodwill ambassador and former youth ambassador for Sustainable Development Goal 13: Climate Action, who also founded and chairs UCL’s climate action society.

Reflecting on that speech with edie, ahead of her appearance at edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum (scroll down for details), Ayaz says: “As a speaker at COP26, I remember telling people in the crowd including politicians, leaders at big corporates, national representatives involved in negotiations… that we, the people – and especially the youth – felt betrayed by broken promises made in the past.

“I asked them to prove us wrong and remind them that myself, and other youth, were there to assess them.”

As other speakers have done, Ayaz used her platform to emphasise how a missed target by a wealthy nation may be little more than a failed box-tick domestically, but a contributor to deadly physical climate impacts in the global south.

And, while Ayaz believes that COP26 President Alok Sharma understood the weight of that responsibility, she also notes that this mindset isn’t evident in all of his colleagues within the UK’s Cabinet. The UK Government has faced criticism in recent weeks for granting a licence for a coal mining project in Wales and an oilfield in the North Sea, with reports that a further six North Sea oil and gas projects are in the pipeline for approval in the coming months.

Moreover, its response to the energy price crisis has been criticised due to the relatively small level of weighting given to energy efficiency improvements. A replacement for the Green Homes Grant, at the same scale of the failed £2bn scheme, has not yet been forthcoming.

“There just needs to be a follow-up with policies in this space, rather than the development of completely new policies,” says Ayaz on building energy efficiency. “My genuine belief is that, if the UK Government follows through with one specific policy act and does it through to the end in the next few years, we will have far more success than with ten different acts where work is done in siloes.”

Indeed, the Green Homes Grant closed less than six years after its predecessor, the Green Deal, which also failed to meet targets. Under the Green Deal, just 14,000 households were supported.

Business leadership

For Ayaz, not all of the talk at COP26 involved empty promises and under-ambitious targets – but the real movement came from most-affected nations and sub-national actors. More than 260 corporate initiatives were signed in Glasgow during the two weeks and existing initiatives including the Race to Zero grew further still, following strong progress during the conference preparations.

“I’m much happier with the progress and ambition shown by non-state actors than by nations,” she says. “The number of sub-national and non-state actors with quantifiable emissions reduction targets continues to grow and, every day, I meet more and more business owners in the UK and abroad that are doing this.”

“The Covid-19 pandemic and related economic crisis could, I think, have resulted in lower prioritisation of climate action, particularly by non-state actors including businesses…But the past few years have taught us valuable lessons.”

The lessons include a growing understanding of the need for a just transition, against an uptick of interest in the green recovery narrative. Many firms, including Kraft Heinz and Kao Corporation, shifted the language used to describe their approach from ‘CSR’ or ‘sustainability’ to ‘ESG’ (environmental, social, governance). Many others pulled their work in these fields into strategies for the first time, or are in the process of doing so.

Evolving approach

Nonetheless, accusations of purpose-washing continue to be made against corporates and against their investors on a regular basis. There seem to be new accusations every day, but to provide an overview, the World Benchmarking Alliance’s assessment of 1,000 of the world’s largest businesses found that 99% are broadly failing on ethical conduct.

For Ayaz, delivering ESG approaches are ambitious and joined up – and overcoming the ‘sustainability vs profitability’ mindset amid the current cost-of-living hike – requires an equity-first approach.

While equality involves giving all groups the same support, equity recognises that some groups are currently at a disadvantage and that, therefore, providing them with additional, tailored resources and opportunities is necessary.

“One thing that all non-state actors could keep in mind, whether they’re big businesses or small businesses, is that – if designed with equity in mind – major investments and innovation solutions could help mitigate climate change and build in climate resilience,” she argues.

“This approach could bring about unprecedented gains to communities who are most affected, which in turn are gains in the climate and economic spheres.”

The need for a more human-centric approach to the climate crisis was raised by many of the top-level speakers from the global south at COP26, including Barbados’ prime minister Mia Mottley, who emphasised that failures to meet international finance commitments can be “measured in the loss of lives and livelihoods in our communities”.  Similarly, Wathuti implored listeners to “open their hearts” to those on the front lines of the climate crisis in Africa.

Taking into account Ayaz’s points, it may well be the case that businesses can and should take a more human-centric approach to ESG.

Much was said during lockdown restrictions about the need for business leaders who are considerate of the different needs of different groups, including workers with physical or mental health issues and those caring for children or the elderly. It would be hard to argue as to why this approach should not be replicated as we grapple with the longer-term crises facing our natural world.

Sarah George

Join the conversation at edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum 2022

edie’s biggest event of the year is returning as a live, in-person event for 2022. 

The Sustainability Leaders Forum will take place on 7, 8 and 9 March 2022, and will unite hundreds of professionals for inspiring keynotes, dynamic panel discussions, interactive workshops and facilitated networking. There will also be digital tickets.

Taking place at London’s Business Design Centre, the event will feature more than 60 speakers, including experts from Natural England, the Green Finance Institute, the World Economic Forum and the Centre for Climate Repair. We’re planning our most diverse and inspirational programme yet.

Click here for full information and to book your pass.

Aliza Ayaz is appearing on Day Twp of the Forum (9 March). She will be participating in a plenary panel on young leaders shaping the future of sustainable business (click here for full session details). 


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