Ex-Nike sustainability lead: Business climate activism can sway policy

Wadia (second from left) spoke alongside former US Energy Secretary Steven Chu (far left)

Speaking as part of a roundtable at InnoEnergy’s The Business Booster conference in Paris today (4 October), Wadia was asked how businesses interact with governments on sustainability issues – particularly given that corporates seem to be able to set bold targets faster than national governments can change legislation.

He explained that while businesses have historically been covert in requesting “policy incentives at a macro scale” – and while such incentives are likely still “the first best solution” – the catalyst of conversations is now the changing demands of consumers and workers, who are asking for public and bold moves on decarbonisation.

“Brands do have a role to play in shaping policy but more from, I think, a market-driven approach,” Wadia said.

“Companies have two things they can play with: the product or service they sell and all the ingredients that go into this, where they can lead by example, and their voice. Some voices are larger than others and, I guarantee that if we, during my time [at Nike], said very clearly that we would no longer do business in any country without a proactive climate framework, we’d watch how fast Vietnam and Bangladesh sprang to action.”

Wadia said that such a move from a corporate can be classed as “simple, zero-cost, 100% courageous leadership”, adding that the trend towards making these activist decisions around policy is in the early stages of emergence due to growing societal support.

“While there are pockets of success, far too few companies have taken really bold steps. We are seeing a little bit of a split room in terms of the large brands [between] those using their voice and those that are not,” he summarised, citing Amazon as a brand exemplifying “courageous leadership”.

The e-commerce giant recently pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions across its operations by 2040, after its staff lobbied repeatedly for the firm to take more bold action on climate change.

When asked why he admired Amazon’s new commitments despite its previous record of lagging other retailers and tech giants in decarbonising and improving worker rights, Wadia highlighted Amazon’s scale and growth plans as factors which have required it to set a “bold” target without a way to get there. For example, Amazon relies heavily on the notoriously hard-to-abate aviation, shipping and heavy road transport sectors to do business – and there are currently not enough carbon credits on the market globally to offset its footprint in these areas.

Leadership or necessity?

The Florence School of Regulation’s director Jean-Michel Glachant disagreed with Wadia’s sentiments on Amazon, citing a combination of changing policies, markets, consumer attitudes and employee priorities as factors which will eventually put all firms without bold carbon targets out of business.

“I’m not impressed; the simple fact is that if companies take no action, they’ll disappear,” Glachant said.

However, he noted that Amazon’s unparalleled market share and its ever-changing offering have positioned it as able to make sustainability part of “our day-to-day lives and how we self-identify”. The company’s emerging smart home technologies and repeat order and rapid delivery options, Glachant noted, give it a wide and deep reach.

On this, Wadia agreed, speaking out in favour of a “tipping point” in which sustainability “comes naturally” to all decisions – be they made by consumers, businesses or policymakers.

“Fundamentally, that which is invisible is that which is sustainable,” he said. £We don’t want to have to force consumers to make ‘A versus B’ choices all the time because there is too much information and too much misinformation. Sustainability is a complicated issue.

“But, at the same time, we have to seize this moment right now. We have a generation coming at us and asking companies to live by their values and show it – not just talk broadly about it. And, in the digital age, we can’t escape truth, which is a good thing.”

Wadia’s sentiments come at a time of increasing calls for a new, embedded form of corporate sustainability – with some arguing that this process will go so far that traditional CSR departments will become obsolete.

These demands appear to be echoed by the workforce and general public, particularly Millennials and Gen-Z’ers. Communications agency FleishmanHillard Fishburn (FHF), for example, found that 93% of the millennial generation want to buy from companies that have purpose, sustainability and environmental stewardship built into their ethos. The findings echo those of Deloitte, which revealed in 2016 that 56% of millennials will exclude companies that are not operating sustainably from their shopping lists, while 49% will refuse to work for companies that go against their personal ethics.

Sarah George

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