Sustainability Leaders Forum: Five top tips for turning climate ambition into action

With the dust settling on three days of thought-provoking conversations at edie's Sustainability Leaders Forum (SLF), edie rounds up how businesses can make 2021 a super year for climate action, which turns ambition into action for corporate sustainability.

edie also hosted a bespoke roundtable discussion with sustainability representatives present at the Forum, sponsored by EDF

edie also hosted a bespoke roundtable discussion with sustainability representatives present at the Forum, sponsored by EDF

edie's award-winning Sustainability Leaders Forum event returned from 2-4 February in a brand new virtual format. This year, speakers including former Energy Minister Claire O'Neill and World Green Building Council chief executive Christina Gamboa all provided expert insight on making 2021 a “super year” for climate action.

edie also hosted a bespoke roundtable discussion with sustainability representatives present at the Forum, sponsored by EDF. The roundtable participants discussed the key actions that could be taken from three days of energised discussions.

Over the course of the three-day forum, many well-known quotes and mantras were shared, but perhaps none more important that when Kier Group’s head of sustainability and environment Jo Gilroy shared this quote from Abraham Lincoln: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe”.

With COP26 now firmly on the horizon, and many businesses hurtling towards net-zero targets, the early months of 2021 can be spent “sharpening the axe” on how sustainability professionals can turn ambitious low-carbon strategies into tangible, transformational action.

1) Become ‘stubborn optimists’

Sustainability professionals are impressively positive in their outlook, especially when considering the daunting transformation they’ve been tasked with delivering and the severe impacts of climate change that will worsen if corporates don’t play their part in transitioning to the green economy.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic, economic fragility, job uncertainty and the shortening deadlines to reach net-zero will add dark clouds to otherwise sunny skies. In these times, it is important that sustainability professionals remain resilient in the face of a multitude of challenges.

On the opening morning of the Sustainability Leaders Forum one of the architects of the Paris Agreement, Tom Rivett-Carnac, took to the virtual stage to highlight the importance of sustainability professionals adopting a major mindset change to “stubborn optimism”.

The term is defined as “a determination to face the reality that is coming at us with courage”. Rivett-Carnac explained that some misconceive stubborn optimism as a wish to only focus on the positives and to ignore the complexities. Instead, he described the mindset as one in which “you face the reality full-on”, “accept that genuine failure is possible” and “acknowledge that real success is also possible”.

 “An instinctive reaction is to recoil a little internally… it’s really frightening. But I would argue that the only rational response is to ride out to meet it and say ‘this is an enormous privilege, to be alive right now, to have the chance to turn things around’. Far from feeling a sense of disempowerment or loss of control… we should face it with determination.”

If businesses are to undergo the required transformations to achieve a low-carbon future, the individuals and teams steering long-term strategies will need to stay resolutely optimistic that transformation can be achieved. If CSR professionals can equip a laser-focus on the opportunities that a green recovery will bring, businesses can transform in ways many wouldn’t believe to be achievable. Indeed, many of the participants in the roundtable discussions, convened by EDF and edie, noted the “stubborn optimists” tagline as one of the key takeaways from the Forum, with many keen to use that mindset moving forward.

2) Harness newfound business agility and don’t revert to normal

Sustainability professionals should take some comfort that the coronavirus pandemic has already forced the hands of many businesses. Businesses have had to be agile in their response to the pandemic, whether it be by pivoting manufacturing to assist with protective equipment, transferring internal communications to a digital format with workers forced to work from home, or realising that long-term resiliency is just as important as quarterly profits.

Participants in the roundtable summarised that if 2020 proved anything, it was that businesses demonstrated they can respond to risk and are capable of rapid change, at a time when it is imperative that they do change. The impact that the climate crisis will have on humanity, the economy and business resiliency all mirror the current restraints caused by the coronavirus outbreak. If a C-Suite is worried about business performance from a disease outbreak, they need to be made aware how climate and ecological breakdown will increase the frequency of these outbreaks, while adding wildfires, floods and rising temperatures into the storm of challenges that they will have to overcome – all of which will impact the economy and therefore profits.

Fortunately, Covid-19 has actually increased executive focus on sustainability, participants claimed, learning some lessons that were ignored during the 2008 financial crash in the process. The current economic downturn has fundamentally shifted the mindsets of businesses and politicians. The realisation that humanity and the economy are fragile has seen many corporates reinvigorated approaches to sustainability, whether it be through investor pressures, market shifts or the demand from consumers.

Internally, behaviour change will also be crucial in meeting your sustainability goals. Again the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have shown that people can also change when faced with unprecedented challenges.

Work is no longer “where you go, but rather what you do” the roundtable participants summarised and the pandemic has accelerated a shift to distributed work. As such, it is increasingly important that businesses create a sense of purpose and a work environment that makes employees want to represent them and contribute to values that are engrained in the actions of businesses.

Even as vaccines are rolled out, one of the greatest risks of the pandemic is an inherent desire from some organisations to revert back to “business as usual” – the very way of working that led to this economic and humanitarian fragility. Sustainability professionals can help mould new mindsets that showcase that new business models can improve resiliency, profitability and strengthen consumer and customer relations.

Society has spent the last year listening to the science and sustainability professionals can seize this, by highlighting the warnings that climate science is showcasing, and the response that is required through carbon reductions that are aligned to said science, namely through the development of science-based targets.

3) Leverage the external pressures facing business…

Even the less stubbornly optimistic amongst sustainability and energy practitioners will have taken comfort from the sheer volume of high-profile announcements that fell like dominoes in the build-up to the Forum.

From BlackRock's chief executive Larry warning chief executives that "no issue ranks higher than climate change" in his annual letter, to the landmark Dasgupta review that outlined how businesses and policymakers can include and account for nature as part of economic decisions, the noise around addressing the climate crisis has reached fever pitch within the investor and political circles.

BNP Paribas Asset Management’s chief sustainability strategist Mark Lewis believes that the dramatic change in focus on the climate crisis visible in both the policy and financial spheres will force businesses to embrace the low-carbon movement, “whether they like it or not”.

“We’re seeing policymakers set net-zero targets, which will force companies to align one way or another, whether they like it or not,” Lewis said. “Excluding companies from portfolios becomes less necessary if policymakers are putting in place net-zero frameworks. Then it is a decision for the company of whether they want to align with that and if they don’t, they’re going to go out of business.”

Getting boardroom buy-in and embedding sustainability holistically has always been a key challenge that many sustainability professionals have struggled to overcome. But the tumbling costs of low-carbon innovations coupled with external pressure from net-zero policies and ESG investors will force even the most reluctant businesses to journey down the low-carbon pathway.

Forum facilitator Solitaire Townsend called it “putting your money where your morals are” and indeed, even the more maturely developed sustainability strategy will now have overcome scrutiny from the investment community.

With many consumers and green groups concerned about cases of corporate greenwashing, sustainability and marketing professionals should be aware that disclosure, data and transparency will all be used by investors to uncover what counts as truly sustainable. It’ll be the businesses with a demonstratable purpose across social and environmental issues that thrive as part of the green recovery.

4)…Especially COP26

The COP26 climate conference is scheduled for November this year and acts as a lighthouse guiding politicians and sectors towards the low-carbon conversation. While it is a high-profile political debate aimed at increasing global efforts to combat the climate crisis, corporates have been quick to align themselves with the messaging and purpose of the summit.

The UK Government has repeatedly signalled its intention to showcase private-sector innovations and achievements at COP26. Moreover, it is using the Race to Zero campaign to urge businesses to increase the ambition of their commitments before November.

But what does COP26 mean for the sustainability professional? The external drivers of investors and policy frameworks offer clear glimpses of what is required of corporates, but COP26 remains more enigmatic. Indeed, the roundtable participants questioned how businesses could harness the discussions to deliver actionable progress.

Fortunately, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD’s) managing director for climate and energy, and former BEIS energy minister, Claire O’Neill (nee Perry), spoke during day two of the Forum, and summarised how businesses can harness the momentum that will be generated in the build-up to COP26.

“COP26 does not have a place to bring this private sector ambition as part of its core negotiating function,” O’Neill said. “Our job is to use the amplitude of the COP moment to bring these private sector solutions and to collaborate very well with government…. The more you can collaborate, the better. There are obviously many traditional industry groups but, sometimes, forgive me, they come across as simply lobbyists…. When industries get together and work with their supply chain, then we can have a much more nuanced conversation.

“Come to [politicians] in a joined-up way with some very specific asks and make the case by showcasing the opportunity. We always talk about the pain and the cost.”

While some corporations will receive exposure by being official partners of COP26, the true benefit of the summit to sustainability practitioners will be the sense of momentum and unity it offers to businesses to engage with different stakeholders. COP26 becomes an icebreaker to negotiations and discussions on sustainability, innovation and collaboration. It is the single thread that will run through every political and industry discussion this Summer and Autumn, and sustainability professionals that can use the summit as a sales pitch for new ideas and mindsets can ignite rapid progress on the sustainability journey.

5) Seek meaningful collaboration

Indeed, during the Forum, the COP26 Net-Zero Business Champion, Andrew Griffith MP, spoke of the need for professionals to engage with their supply chains, competitors and communities to maximise positive outcomes ahead of the global climate summit.

Griffith said there is now “a really historic opportunity to build a crescendo of momentum that we can all use to make real and lasting change happen”. Key to this success will be a new-found sense of collaboration.

“Please work with your supply chain to show them what you and they can do,” Griffith said. “We’re all each others’ keepers on the climate agenda and everyone is someone else’s customer or supplier. If we all move together, at the same time, the costs of achieving the change are transformationally lower. And, importantly, we can all move much faster.”

There are a few high-profile examples of how businesses can ignite sector-wide change. The UK's major water companies have unveiled a Routemap detailing how solar installations, electric vehicles and biomethane production will enable the sector to reach net-zero emissions by 2030. The Routemap estimates a potential investment of up to £4bn, based on currently available technologies.

Collaboration has been a buzzword for sustainability professionals for years and yet it still remains a crucial challenge to overcome. This is because as sustainability has evolved from a pre-competitive movement to a business prerequisite, the way in which businesses must work together has changed.

Roundtable participants noted that there is still a lot of complexity and jargon in the sphere of corporate sustainability and collaboration requires a foundation of understanding. Businesses can work together once they’ve defined the end goal; is it net-zero, carbon-neutral or net-positive? Just as important is understanding the requirements to get there. Greenwash is a critical threat to the sustainability movement, and corporates working together need to ensure that they aren’t being held back by those trying to offset or market their way through this agenda as a means to reap fruits without actually planting seeds.

Matt Mace



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