21 New Year's resolutions for sustainability professionals in 2021 and beyond

At last, 2020 has drawn to a close and while the first parts of a new year might not create a respite from a global pandemic and an economic crash, it does create the ideal opportunity to look at the climate crisis with a reinvigorated approach.

edie has highlighted 21 aspirational new goals that professionals can work towards to help drive business prosperity while alleviating some key environmental and planetary concerns

edie has highlighted 21 aspirational new goals that professionals can work towards to help drive business prosperity while alleviating some key environmental and planetary concerns

It is doubtful that anyone had 'survive a global health pandemic' down as their New Year’s Resolution 12 months ago, but every single person has had to deal with a pandemic that has reshaped everyday life, and added emotional turmoil to an otherwise health-related concern.

But 2021 has early signs of promise in the form of a vaccine that could enable some semblance of a next normal to take shape. Whether in lockdown or not, many sustainability professionals will be juggling the short-term economic needs of businesses with the long-term rallying cry to decarbonise. As such, 2021 is a crucial year to reimagine corporate sustainability.

With this in mind, edie has highlighted 21 aspirational new goals that professionals can work towards to help drive business prosperity while alleviating some key environmental and planetary concerns.

1) Do less, but with more impact

The long-term, transformative requirements of corporate sustainability have often been delivered by small teams, consisting of a handful of individuals. As the demand for sustainable products, services and business models grow, so too do the to-do lists for sustainability professionals.

However, this increase in projects isn’t always matched with increased funding or additional team members. During a roundtable of sustainability professionals at the start of last year, individuals agreed that the role of their job function going forward will need to be streamlined and fine-tuned, aiming to deliver tangible impact through a selection of initiatives, rather than spreading themselves too thin across the entire CSR spectrum.

2) Focus on inclusivity

One of the many things that shaped 2020 was the Black Lives Matter movement. It created uncomfortable but necessary conversations about white privilege and whether society is becoming more inclusive or splitting to become more divisive.

Questions remain as to whether sustainability, namely through the costs associate with products, can be viewed as inclusive and businesses and sustainability professionals may need to have conversations to ensure their products, initiatives and campaigns improve all areas of society.

Hannah Biggs, sustainability project lead, UCL, summarised:  “We’re undertaking lots of workshops to ensure we make our campaigns accessible to people of all races, genders and abilities. We’re setting up a student ambassador scheme and council, too, so more people can have their say.”

3) Identify your role in delivering an inclusive green recovery

The Black Lives Matter movement hit during the middle of the coronavirus pandemic and global lockdown. Politicians and businesses have promised to “build back better” from the pandemic through a just and green economic recovery.

How this will be achieved remains to be seen, and there is a danger that the green recovery may not improve social mobility. Sustainability professionals have a unique position to ensure that business decisions to accelerate towards a green recovery do so in a just manner.

Kate Neale, sustainability manager, Cadogan, added: “It’s so important that we don’t detract from the pace of change we need, and that we bring everyone with us. As a colleague said recently, if 2019 was the year of the planet, 2020 is the year of people. And I’m hoping that 2021 is the year of both.”

4) Start your net-zero journey

We listed this as a recommendation last year, but the disruption caused by the pandemic in 2020 means that some may still not have fleshed out their net-zero transition, despite numerous pledges being made last year.

Net-zero has become commonly used for commitments made either by private companies, public sector bodies or national governments and assemblies, such as the UK Government and devolved administrations, to achieving net-zero carbon and other emissions by a specified date. This commitment to net-zero, which often has a decades-long trajectory, is often accompanied by a science-based target that aligned to the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C pathway.

Whether you still need more guidance on what a net-zero target looks like for your business (download our guide here) or are really to take the leap of faith, visit edie’s Mission Possible Pledge Wall and submit your net-zero pledge this year.

5) Or, look beyond net-zero

For some companies, 2020 was a year that net-zero commitments were reached, at least for Scope 1 and 2 emissions. However, businesses can’t afford to claim that net-zero is their final destination. Businesses such as Microsoft have unveiled plans to “go beyond” net-zero, through commitments to become carbon negative or planet positive.

So if you’re confident that your organisation will reach net-zero at some point in 2021, now is the time to start focusing on the next leg of the journey to not just eliminate contributions to the climate crisis, but restoring nature and tackling historic emissions.

6) Re-examine offsetting

On the topic of net-zero, the use of carbon offsetting has been a controversial discussion. The rise in net-zero targets has created a ripple effect that seems to have put carbon offsetting back on the corporate agenda, with airlines and e-commerce platforms, in particular, using them as part of their carbon strategies. However, many green groups continue to be sceptical about the true impact of carbon offsetting.

While offsetting has its place in a carbon strategy, some companies are now exploring “insetting” – an investment or programme into nature-based carbon reduction programmes that take place within the ‘sphere of influence’ of a company, either through location, commodity or production measures. Insetting gives a business far more control and understanding of the impacts of a programme and can still involve NGOs and green groups across the entire value chain. Other businesses are looking at rewilding or technological efforts to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Whatever an organisation’s approach to offsetting is, not using it as the main part of a carbon reduction strategy is key.

7) Look at new areas of collaboration

Collaboration has long been a buzzword for sustainability professionals, usually in terms of working with those in the same sector or industry to drive pre-competitive change. Fortunately, those types of conversations are becoming more common, but the need to share ideas and best practice continues to rise as the climate emergency exacerbates.

Epson Europe’s sustainability manager Daniel Quelch summarised the need to collaborate with new sectors, in a bid to forge new partnerships that can deliver new services much like the ongoing coupling of network operators and vehicle manufacturers.

“To collaborate more at a lower level,” Quelch said. “We’ve seen this trend this year on a range of different topics, and I want to see businesses coming together that would not naturally come together. I want to see collaboration happening for the right reasons – solving some of the biggest social and environmental issues we’ve got… ideas can come from nowhere and they are often brilliant.”

8) Encourage unconventional thinking and ideas

Building on the notion that collaboration can be redefined, so too can how businesses think and plan. Sustainability as a function is still in its infancy compared to traditional corporate functions such as finance and procurement, which means that ways of thinking aren’t as entrenched in tradition.

As such, 2021 is an ideal time to work with partners, customers and employees to find ways to incentivize the marketplace to help find sustainability solutions. The pandemic has taught businesses that they can work under unprecedented circumstances and this flexibility can be tapped into to encourage ideas and thinking that buck traditional ways of working and accelerate innovative solutions.

"Understanding the fundamentals of sustainable best practices is a critical first step, but innovation comes from challenging conventional wisdom to foster breakthrough solutions," Dow's director of sustainability for EMEA, Tony Kingsbury, told edie. "[One of my resolutions is to] work with partners, customers and employees to find ways to incentivize the marketplace to help find solutions." 

9) Become a thought leader

Kingsbury also put forward this point. By definition, sustainability professionals are already driving change internally, getting the decision-makers to embrace new ideas or becoming decision-makers themselves. However, sustainability professionals can accelerate the transition to low-carbon business models by becoming thought leaders that incentivize employees to act more sustainability.

Externally, sustainability professionals can articulate their passions and expertise in public forums in order to educate and engage with a wider audience. These can be seen in the forms of webinars, speaking slots at events or even by writing blogs for edie. Championing your own thoughts can inspire others to embrace the disruption on the horizon with enthusiasm and open minds.

10) Make sustainability irresistible

Procter & Gamble's global head of sustainable innovation Frantz Beznik notes that “a lot of the decisions that will drive sustainability will come from decisions made in the homes of consumers, whether that is about their home, food or transport.” As such, Beznik is calling on businesses to make sustainability a “truly irresistible” choice.

This can be achieved by lowering upfront costs of purchases on goods and innovations and clearly and simply explaining how a sustainable product or service will improve the buyer’s life and help transition towards a net-zero carbon economy. This can’t just be marketing greenwash, however, the aspect you’re trying to sell has to deliver transformational benefits for people and planet, which may require going back to the drawing board on products and manufacturing methods.

11) Go to COP26

Glasgow will host the COP26 climate change summit in winter this year, following the postponement last year as a result of the coronavirus. COP26 is widely seen as the first major test of the UK Government’s net-zero carbon targets and its support for the climate emergency, and five years on from the Paris Agreement it will also be an opportunity for the international community to consider its efforts to scale-up carbon emission reductions and make new pledges.

With a potential Glasgow Agreement on the horizon, the event – physical or otherwise – is a great place to meet like-minded sustainability professionals and receive a valuable global temperature check on the appetite to tackle climate change, which in turn gives delegates a preview of the likely legislation to follow. Sustainability professionals that have been to previous conferences usually agree that it is a great way to invigorate and motivate themselves too.

12) Get ahead of the curve on disclosure

Mandatory disclosure on climate-related information is coming, with the UK Government promising to rollout new requirements for businesses as part of a green finance revolution. The Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) recommendations are a new, yet vital, framework for businesses to get to grips with to showcase not just how emissions are being reduced, but how resiliency against a multitude of climate-related impacts will ensure financial prosperity.

As such, 2021 should be the year that sustainability professionals get to grips with climate-related disclosure and the TCFD framework provides a much-needed gateway to translate climate risks into financial ones, which could well gain the attention of the boardroom as a result.

What are the TCFD recommendations? Why does climate disclosure matter? How do you access the financial impacts of climate change? And, what is scenario analysis? This free edie Explains guide gives you everything you need to know.

13) Get your organisation to understand the importance of transparency

In the digital age where an audience can be reached at the touch of a button, it is not enough for businesses to approach disclosure as a tick-box exercise. Businesses need to create conversations and dialogues with consumers, suppliers and stakeholders that approaches sustainability in an honest and transparent way.

The sheer scope of CSR means that decisions might create unintended consequences or trade-offs, while consumer and campaigning demand for change might not be matched by corporate actions due to costs or technological availability. Businesses should know that progress trumps perfection and as long as you can showcase efforts to improve that is relative to your scope and impact, stakeholders will be much more forgiving. This means putting away the excuses, the historic success and the greenwash and instead being honest and transparent about how you feel you can drive change.

14) Keep your mental health in check

Corporate sustainability, at any level, can sometimes feel like swimming against the tide, especially when looking at the global devastation that climate change continues to cause. This coupled with the mental health issues caused by lockdowns, global health pandemics and uncertainty over job security makes saving the planet much more taxing on the individual.

George Monbiot believes “we can keep our eco-anxiety at bay by working to rewild our seas and restore our environment” and an important part of the work is to keep yourself recharged. Engage in hobbies and passion that reinvigorate yourself and reconnect you to nature and the planet – after all, it’s the thing we’re trying to save. When things look bleak or you feel demoralised, look back at the last decade and see the strides we’ve taken to deliver a sustainability tipping point. When you feel like you’re fighting a losing battle, look forward at the young climate activists that are shaping society one placard at a time.

15) Mentor the next generation of leaders

The Climate Strikes of 2019 – and virtual strikes of 2020 – are a proof point that the next generations don’t just care about the planet, they’re demanding change. There is a pipeline of young, enthusiastic and passionate workers waiting to help transform businesses, and it is the job of the incumbent to help them reach their full potential.

Global Action Plan, the Institute of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability (ICRS) and the University of Birmingham all teamed up with edie to help create a playbook for young energy and sustainability professionals, but individually, experienced CSR professionals can take those that have just started forging a career under their wing, becoming thought leaders in the process.

16) Explore energy innovations

Energy costs are rising, clean technology costs are tumbling, new off-grid energy opportunities are becoming more viable, and many businesses are still encouraging staff to work from home. What’s more, the UK Government recently unveiled its 10-Point Plan to push the UK towards net-zero carbon emissions.

Energy disruption is coming at a pace, and sustainability and energy professionals need to figure out what solutions work for their organisation during a period of economic struggle. A good place to start this exploration would be edie’s “Technology to achieve net-zero: Learning from the business leaders” webinar, taking place 21 January. Registration is free.

17) Tackle Scope 3 emissions

Energy innovations are great for tackling operational emissions, but more businesses are looking across the entire value chain in order to reduce emissions. What’s more, many businesses setting science-based targets are required to set a similar ambition for Scope 3 emissions.

In order to create a just green recovery, it is not enough to just have your house in order. Efforts must be made to encourage suppliers and consumers to reduce emissions and waste. Figuring out the role your organisation can play could be your big breakthrough in 2021

18) Get nominated for an award

Same as last year. While it’s all well and good putting the processes, systems and behaviours in place that deliver successful progress regarding sustainability, recognition can ensure that others take note that what you and your team have implemented isn’t just successful, it’s best practice.

Getting nominated for a sustainability award can help you get the internal recognition you deserve, plus the awards evenings are usually good fun as well, even if they are virtual. So, why not make it a goal to get your work nominated this year, and be on the lookout for details for edie’s Sustainability Leaders Awards later in the year.

19) Hit your plastic-free goals

It may have felt like plastics dropped off the radar for much of 2020. The severe impact of the coronavirus pandemic sent sudden shockwaves across the globe and has led to a re-evaluation of business as usual and the broken, linear economy. Much of the focus of the green recovery has been on the need for rapid decarbonisation in line with net-zero emissions.

But as consumer-facing facilities such as shops and restaurants re-opened in the Autumn (albeit temporarily) the focus on single-use plastics re-emerged, with hundreds of businesses committing to new trials. As such, 2021 can be the year that businesses can follow the example set by Tesco which confirmed this week that it has met a key plastic reduction goal.

20) Raise your voice in the face of political uncertainty

Uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, lockdown and state of the economy didn’t end with 2020 and the early months of 2021 will be just as confusing for citizens and businesses seeking political guidance.

The fallout from the Brexit deal and murmurs of another national lockdown will dampen some of the optimism deliver by the approval of vaccines in the UK and it is crucial that in the early parts of 2021 businesses find a collective voice to continue to demand a green recovery. The Corporate Leaders Group was crucial in creating a platform for businesses to vocally champion green new deals and green recoveries and this collective voice will be required to ensure that pace towards a net-zero future isn’t slowed.

21) Celebrate the small victories

Much has been said about the urgency required to transform the global economy and many sustainability professionals are looking at long-term trajectories to create entirely new ways of doing business.

Amidst the need to act and raise ambitions, it is wise for sustainability professionals to celebrate results as and when they arise. Whether its improving scores on CDP rankings, having an encouraging conversation with another area of a business, or rolling out new trials, there will be plenty of initiatives for sustainability professionals to celebrate in the short-term while they grapple with the long-term. We could all do with celebrating a little more after the year we just endured.

Do you have your own resolution for 2021? Let us know in the comments.

Matt Mace



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