Five top tips for making 2021 your organisation’s ‘super year’ for sustainability

The one-hour webinar is now available to watch on-demand

2020 has been the year that nobody expected. But with emissions reductions realised this year set to rebound without and ambitious and joined-up green recovery movement, there is no time to waste in delivering the transition to a net-zero, circular and socially just economy.

To that end, edie’s most recent webinar explored some of the key areas in which businesses of all sizes and sectors will need to accelerate work in 2021. Hosted in association with sponsor EDF Energy, the one-hour event heard from experts from Anglian Water and Business in the Community (BITC) ahead of edie’s virtual Sustainability Leaders Forum in February.

Here, edie rounds up some of the speakers’ expert insights on re-thinking business purpose and spurring a truly green recovery. You can watch the webinar on demand to learn more.


1) Understand that you have broad support to go beyond incrementalism and change your business strategy

“Purpose-led business” has become something of a buzzword in 2020. August saw the CEO’s of more than a dozen large corporates sign an open letter speculating that the post-Covid-19 economy would be built on a “purpose-first” basis. Then, this month, the Vatican launched a new business alliance designed to promote financial systems which deliver net benefits for people and planet.

But our webinar speakers agreed that many organisations are still in the mindset of incremental change – and will need to embed considerations around people and planet in their overarching strategies if they are going to deliver the scale of change needed. “Pushing and challenging the board” has been at the top of the sustainability professional’s 2020 do-do list, Anglian Water’s head of sustainability Andy Brown said, and must stay there for the New Year.

Should sustainability professionals need to convince their boards to set higher ambitions or accelerate delivery, BITC’s director of the Global Goals Maria-Jose Subiela said, they may wish to remind them of the sweeping global support for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). More than 10,000 businesses are now signed up to the UN Global Compact and the Goals have received backing from most nations, too. Subiela described the goals as an “agenda for the world” with a “massive consensus”; businesses should look past the vocal minority of climate sceptics and understand they will receive broad support.

“We aren’t talking about developing a statement of purpose and putting that in our reports and accounts; we fundamentally embedded purpose in the heart of our business by changing our articles of association,” Anglian Water’s Brown said. He discussed how this approach had been a “huge challenge” despite strong environmental and social ambition historically, but that it has created benefits which motivate the board, including supply chain and infrastructure resiliency and ease of engagement with staff and customers.

2) Think outside the box

If the outdated image of sustainable business is a single employee sitting in a room at the end of the corridor, never talking to colleagues and delivering short-term project after short-term project, the sustainability professional of the future is a systems thinker. They understand the interconnectivity of the 17 SDGs and the ways in which all parts of society move to generate impact.

Our speakers all encouraged listeners to “have a bird’s eye view of what is going on” by forging and maintaining strong partnerships – internal and external – of all kinds. As well as business partnerships on a certain technology or topic, the opportunities of sector-wide and cross-sector forums, investor engagement and working groups with staff and customers were also floated. By taking this approach, it was agreed, businesses are far less likely to generate unintended negative consequences or to see trust eroded at scale.

“The challenges we face cannot be met with all of us working independently…. We have to look up, beyond our normal boundaries and methods of working to deliver a step-change,” Anglian Water’s Brown said. The firm is notably part of the UK Water Sector’s collective net-zero roadmap for 2030 and developed its long-term priorities with staff and customers.

3) Layer local, national and global thinking

The SDGs were designed to be global – as were the IPCC’s conclusions on limiting the temperature increase to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. As such, there is nowhere to hide and it is clear that all organisations have a role to play.

But Anglian Water’s Brown urged speakers to be mindful of the fact that many key groups who will need to be engaged will respond better to a local approach – especially given the impacts that the pandemic has had regionally. In its green bond reporting, Anglian Water details not only how projects were financed and what environmental impacts they will have, but how many jobs they have created and their other benefits to the local area.

His line of argument is that people respond best and place their trust in businesses when they can see direct positive outcomes. This, in turn, can empower them to feel as if they are part of something bigger – be that nationally or globally.

4) Redefine ‘capital’ and put your money where your mouth is

Anglian Water launched its first green bond report in 2017 and has now completely financed its five-year capital spending programme. Brown said the creation of the bond had been “relatively rapid” and the business had “already embedded strong governance, metrics and other reporting requirements”. Other businesses to have entered the green bond market recently include Tideway, PepsiCo and Visa. Local authorities are also looking to green bonds as a means to align with their net-zero targets and to deliver their green recovery plans.

Brown described how green bonds and a six capitals approach had reshaped Anglian Water’s decision-making process while also attracting positive media coverage and opening the door for new investor relationships. As well as the traditional financial capital approach, the firm measures natural capital, which is becoming increasingly common, as well as manufactured, social, people-related and intellectual capital. The latter of these approaches values innovation and new partnerships.

Organisations which are not well placed to launch a green bond, it was concluded, should still seek to change their financial approach to avoid accusations of greenwash and maximise their positive impact. “[Action has to be] across the value chain,” BITC’s Subiela said. “Businesses should be engaging with their sector and through their investment decisions – whether they are asset owners or whether this is about employee pensions. The good news is that ESG funds continue to outperform regular funds.”

5) Shake up your energy approach

The idea of business leadership on sustainability often revolves around long-term, overarching targets or around purpose commitments. But, as has been said many times, commitments are nothing without delivery.

EDF Energy’s head of large business Raghav Singh urged listeners to recognise that while the power generation sector has driven much decarbonisation in the UK to date, the future of the energy transition ultimately depends on all parts of the system.

“Whilst the traditional, linear link between large generators and end consumers remains, it is supplemented by a range of smaller, independent generation, energy storage and flexibility,” Singh said. This highlights the fact that everyone can play a proactive role for net-zero.”

Any business looking to change its energy approach to deliver greater emissions reductions should first switch to a zero-carbon electricity tariff, Singh explained. From there, they can map out how PPAs, flexible energy assets, distributed generation and electric vehicles (EVs) can work for them in the short-term.

On EVs specifically, Singh discussed the importance of going beyond vehicle transition plans. Businesses must also plan for charging infrastructure by being aware of the speed and capacity they need and how they can support vehicles away from their own facilities.



edie Sustainability Leaders Forum 2021 

The Sustainability Leader’s Forum will take place on 2-4 February held on a virtual platform connecting sustainable business leaders, government representatives, investors and NGOs around a common goal: to solve the climate crisis. 

Taking place over three days, this event will allow you to be connected with peers via face-to-face via video chats; be inspired by high-level keynote talks from industry leaders; be involved in a series of interactive panel discussions and live audience polls; and be co-creative in our interactive workshops, whilst also meeting leading technical experts in our dedicated virtual exhibition zone. Rooms, expo booths, private chats, bespoke stages and backstage passes – it’s all possible, and at zero cost to the planet. 

Find out more and secure your place at the Forum, here.

edie Staff

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