Mary Robinson: Businesses must make ‘deep commitments’ to climate justice

Robinson claimed that climate justice has grown from a "niche issue" in the 1990s to a "widely accepted" ideal

Delivering a keynote speech at EIT InnoEnergy’s The Business Booster summit in Paris today (3 October), Robinson, who now serves as the UN’s Special Envoy on climate change, dubbed the creation of a “just” low-carbon transition as “a deep commitment which all businesses should take”.

While acknowledging the progress of businesses in aligning with the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to date, Robinson said that corporations and governments are still approaching these frameworks as “voluntary” rather than “what is necessary” to meet key climate goals.

“The full implementation of both of these frameworks has become imperative to have a safe future for our children,” Robinson said.

“This requires a change in mindset at the global and political level. I believe it’s through the emerging movement of climate justice that we get that sense of solidarity.”

For Robinson, the concept of climate justice involves making climate change central to all business actions in a way which “prioritises the furthest behind first”.

Businesses may deliver on the former of these two facets by, for example, switching to 100% renewable power – but then fail by neglecting to check whether the supply chain for that power involved modern slavery or the construction of new power generation arrays on indigenous land, Robinson elaborated.

“There’s increasing business and investment leadership, making commitments and calling for more ambitious action from governments – but the importance of this climate justice movement is that it will call for a just transition to a world powered by clean energy, for climate actions that fully respect human rights,” Robinson said.

Specifically, she cited the growth of the Climate Strikes in the public space and the Green New Deal movement gaining traction among policymakers in the UK, US and mainland Europe as trends which will force businesses to consider the social impacts of decarbonisation.

From bystanders to upstanders

After Robinson’s keynote speech concluded, her sentiments around the evolution of sustainable business leadership in the climate activism era were echoed by Bill Weihl, former Facebook sustainability director and Google Clean Energy czar.

While praising business action in areas such as joining the RE100, committing to full fleet electrification and setting net-zero targets, Weihl urged businesses to become “proactive allies” to the climate justice cause by lobbying for legislative change.

Such action, he claimed, is necessary to combat the political lobbying against these changes by big oil and to retain public trust.

“The positive view, the empowering thing is… if you work for a company, it has influence which it could use,” Weihl said.

“You, as an employee – certainly if you are a chief executive or another high-level executive – have the opportunity to shape what your company does. Today, for most companies, they are cleaning up their own operations but not using their influence to have the states and countries where they operate commit to 100% renewable energy.

“Young people have a right to be angry and one of the places they can direct that is at the companies they work for or shop from. They’re saying ‘I want you to be not just a bystander, stepping back and saying you’ve cleaned up your act… I want you to be a proactive ally – what’s known in the anti-bullying movement as an upstander – and stand up for what needs to be done.’”

When asked to give an anecdote on this issue, Weihl cited Amazon. 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.

Weihl said that while Amazon had moved more slowly than its peers in the past, its latest move is a “a very hopeful sign” that corporates are taking the climate concerns of its staff and customers seriously.

Mary Robinson at edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum

edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum returns in 2020, as some of the biggest companies, individuals and organisations championing sustainability gather at the Business Design Centre on 4 & 5 February to discuss the emergency response in transitioning to a net-zero economy.

The flagship, multi-award-winning event features keynotes speakers including Mary Robinson, who will be joined by the likes of former President of Ireland; Rebecca Marmot, Unilever CSO; Tom Szaky, TerraCycle CEO; Gilbert Ghostine, Firmenich CEO plus directors and senior managers from Interface, Vattenfall, John Lewis, Taylor Wimpey, Aviva, Pret A Manger, Pernod Ricard, LEGO Group, M&S, Diageo, Tesco, WSP, BASF, Mondelēz and more. For details and to register, visit:

Sarah George  

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