How can businesses become climate advocates? Here are 8 top tips

Since the UK set its 2050 net-zero target in law, many major businesses have outlined plans for getting there faster. But leadership on climate involves taking a stand and engaging others, as well as going further and faster in-house.

How can businesses become climate advocates? Here are 8 top tips

The Sustainability Leaders Forum is running through to Thursday (4 February) in an all-new virtual format

With this in mind, the plenary panel discussion at Day Two of edie’s virtual Sustainability Leaders Forum (scroll down for details)convened high-level representatives from Sky, Nando’s, Grosvenor Britain & Ireland and Futerra, for a lively talk on what it means to be a climate action “leader” in the private sector.

Here, we round up eight key pieces of advice given by the expert speakers.

1) Target-setting is important, but is not the end-goal

The 2020s have often been called the “decade of delivery” in the environmental space. After a groundswell of net-zero targets by businesses – along with nations, states and local authorities – during 2019 and 2002, all eyes have turned to how progress with be delivered.

All of the speakers on the panel represent organisations with net-zero targets. Sky Zero spans to 2030, as do Nando’s’ science-based targets and Grosvenor Britain & Ireland’s ‘Think Zero’ roadmap.

While acknowledging the impact these targets have in terms of engaging staff, investors and consumers with a long-term vision, speakers agreed that they are not enough on their own.

Nando’s’ chief executive Colin Hill said: “The commitment and the conviction to move is the start. It’s going to be a long, hard journey with some complexity and unknowns. We know we will make progress but, more importantly, we know that we, as a business, can lead our sector. To be successful, really, the whole sector needs to come with us.”

To Hill’s latter point, Nando’s is one of the founding members of the Zero Carbon Forum, which is plotting a shared course to net-zero for the UK’s hospitality sector.

2) Broaden your scopes – more responsibility means more opportunity

Panel chair Solitaire Townsend, co-founder of Futerra, outlined how ever more businesses are accounting for their Scope 3 (indirect) emissions as net-zero targets force them to tighten their climate approach. She also discussed the increasing focus on ‘Scope X’ – “where a company takes responsibility for influencing society – not just its own supply chain or consumers. It recognises that even if we all hit our wonderful targets, we probably won’t save the world, because no company is an island.”

Townsend argued that all corporates are already aware that they have a Scope X impact, hence their involvement in trade bodies that lobby. She urged listeners to help their organisation use this Scope for good and to be more transparent – as Sky has done through its Rainforest Rescue and Ocean Rescue campaigns.

Providing her advice on developing and launching such schemes, Sky’s director of Bigger Picture Fiona Ball said: “When you look at your position, values and brand as an oragisation, that’s when you come up with the levers.”

“Our real, specific role as a broadcaster is to influence people. Is to host the debate. Is to raise awareness to the extent that policy changes happen.

“Really understanding what your role is – and that will be different across many different sectors – is crucial. From there, it’s about getting behind [the agenda] fully.”

3) Share knowledge to help make sustainability pre-competitive

The plenary panel at Day One (Tuesday, 2 February) of the Forum, featuring speakers from the likes of Anglian Water and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, focused heavily on the role of industry-specific and cross-industry collaborations in delivering the private sector’s response to the twin climate and nature crises.

Speakers today agreed, but also acknowledged that not all organisations are in a position to enter closed initiatives, due to barriers like a lack of in-house knowledge or finance. Open-source tools, standards and processes were floated as a potential part of the solution.

Grosvenor Britain & Ireland’s executive director of sustainability and innovation Tor Burrows explained that the practical guides being used by the firm’s development teams have been publicly published. She said: “There’s no competition here. There is very much a collective responsibility to overcome this crisis.”

4) Do the hard work in-house

Definitions of leadership often centre around who moves first and fastest. But speakers agreed that taking the slower route cand sometimes result in more meaningful and wide-reaching impacts.

Both Grosvenor’s Burrows and Nando’s’ Hill explained that their organisations could offset all emissions immediately, simply by buying credits or directly purchasing forests or other carbon-sequestering assets. Instead, they have implemented “hierarchies” to ensure that direct reductions are prioritised and that any offsetting or insetting projects come with social benefits, too.

Grosvenor is using the energy hierarchy, for example, which positions energy efficiency as the foundation for switching to cleaner sources and offsetting “as a last resort”. Nando’s has said it will only invest in offsetting projects that “change lives”. 

5) Balance the desire for certainty with the opportunities of agility

Speakers on Forum panels often consist of sustainability professionals and provide advice on securing board-level buy-in. Nando’s’ Hill was asked to provide his view from the other side of the table and outlined how his work on the restaurant chain’s climate roadmap was something of a “balancing act” between the need for certainty and the opportunities of being able to change approaches. While the framework has specific deadlines with numerical targets, there is flexibility around how best to deliver progress.

He said: “When you’re stepping into that world of uncertainty, it’s a world where you could possibly fail. This could be posed as a reason not to move forward.

“But you’re sat there as a leader looking for absolute clarity – something that we often like – and a clear roadmap with clear milestones, you’re not going to get on the journey.”

Grosvenor’s Burrows agreed, adding: “The business asks for clarity… but balancing that with the fact that climate science is evolving week-by-week along with best-practice and policy… is a really hard balance to strike.”

6) When acting on social issues, address root causes as well as symptoms

The Black Lives Matter protests of last year, compounded by the ways in which the pandemic has widened and highlighted existing social inequalities, means that more executives and sustainability professionals are striving to take an intersectional approach in 2021, the panellists agreed.

After several big-name brands were accused of paying lip service to social justice last year (Vogue and Lush, to name but two), Hill was asked for his advice on delivering a holistic response.

He outlined how Nando’s’ “Fuel Your Future” work has “multiple layers”. To provide immediate help to those in need, it redistributes surplus food through a network of 450+ charities. To connect these communities, groups are invited into restaurants for free meals and for social sessions (pandemic aside). And, finally, marginalised people are offered apprenticeships and work opportunities.

The approach covers both the biggest touch-points that Nando’s has with people across the value chain – suppliers, employees, customers and communities around its South African birthplace – and one of its biggest environmental impacts, food procurement and waste.

All in all, Hill urged listeners to avoid “following the path of least resistance” by choosing easy, limited-time campaigns which only address the results of social issues, rather than their root causes.

7) Reframe your business’ USP 

Many businesses with big, long-term environmental goals have been accused of failing to alter their business models accordingly – whether it’s energy majors with net-zero commitments but no plans to exit fossil fuels, or fast fashion giants whose model relies on overconsumption.

Nando’s’ Hill was, therefore, asked about the brand’s foray into the plant-based protein market. Last year, it launched a meat alternative called the ‘Great Imitator’, claiming that life-cycle carbon impacts are half that of chicken.

Hill explained that the ‘Great Imitator’ is already accounting for 3% of turnover and said he can envision a future in which 30% of Nando’s’ main menu items are plant-based by 2030. To deliver this transition, he said, the brand is reframing its USP: “Having worked with the broader group across the globe on our vision, we talk about the peri-peri flavour with our customers rather than our chicken. That’s an acknowledgement of what is really in our DNA… it gives us permissibility to go into multiple places.”

For businesses that see changing consumer demands as a challenge rather than a market opportunity, Hill encouraged sustainability teams to help product developers “embed sustainability as a first thought” and to not shy away from the potential opportunities.

8) Position nature as a strong ally

During an audience poll at the Forum, biodiversity and nature was named as the topic that attendees want to be given the most focus at COP26. With the 15th Biodiversity COP on the horizon and the G7 summit expected to contain nature elements, there was an agreement that now is an opportunity to change the narrative on nature. Indeed, the major new Dasgupta review out this week argued the case for a price on nature.

Sky’s Ball argued that better metrics are needed for businesses to track the impact of “natural carbon sinks” like forests, wetlands and mangroves – but that businesses should invest in these assets while also asking for better support. The Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi) is notably consulting on nature-based targets for business currently.

Futerra’s Townsend added that a further barrier can be the way nature is talked about. She said: “We often think of nature as either a victim of what we’re doing or, in some ways, as an enemy, when we get serious weather events. The truth is that nature is our ally – probably our number one ally in combatting climate change.”

edie will be producing a report on biodiversity and running a webinar to complement this in April. Watch this space.

There’s still time to join the conversation at edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum 

From Tuesday 2 to Thursday 4 February 2021, edie’s award-winning Sustainability Leaders Forum event is returning in a brand new virtual format. This year, we are delighted to bring you speakers including former Energy Minister Claire O’Neill and World Green Building Council CEO Christina Gamboa. 

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. 

For a full agenda and to register now, visit: 

Sarah George

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