Pressing challenges: What should sustainability professionals set as their New Year’s Resolution?

Businesses continue to grapple with the current economic downturn, the agreements both made and missed at COP28 are only just starting to take shape and there are brand new frameworks on the horizon for sustainability professionals to get to grips with. What does 202r hold for sustainability professionals? Here, edie outlines the resolutions that readers are setting for the New Year.

Pressing challenges: What should sustainability professionals set as their New Year’s Resolution?

It’s clear to see from the headlines, new job listings and ongoing discussions about impending elections both in the UK and abroad that sustainability and the green agenda will not be taking a backseat in 2024.

As the geopolitical puzzle continues to evolve, with potential changes to UK and US leadership on the cards this year, and Russia’s ongoing war with Ukraine showing no signs of stopping, global stability and a much-needed bedrock for global climate action could change drastically.

Against such a volatile global backdrop it can be helpful for sustainability professionals to have goals in place that act as a North Star for their actions this year. With sustainability covering so much – from net-zero goals to nature-based action – there are plenty of goals to be set and achieved in 2024.

With this in mind, here is a selection of the commitments sustainability professionals can make in 2024

1) Upskill the wider organisation

Although many organisations are growing their sustainability teams (GreenBiz Group estimates that three in four large businesses have more professionals with related specialisms than they did in 2020), we know that delivering meaningful change requires buy-in, engagement and actions from other parts of the business.

Indeed, many other department heads working for businesses are looking to build their teams with workers who are savvy in all things climate-related.

Last month, PwC revealed that almost 17,000 green finance roles in the UK remain unfilled, with worker upskilling not matching the pace of the sustainable finance profession’s rapid expansion.

Analysts found that the proportion of financial sector job postings badged as ‘green’ currently stands at 2.2% – almost a tenfold increase on 2019-20’s proportion. This means that 16,700 green finance jobs are currently open, up from 4,900 three years ago.

PwC UK attributes the trend largely to the creation of new jobs in the finance sector as it works to support the UK’s 2050 net-zero target and to grow the global green economy. Popular role creations include ESG analysts, sustainable investment strategy developers and climate finance specialists.

Aside from finance, there is a need to upskill key functions like the c-suite, procurement and, crucially, marketing, if a business is to not just set ambitious climate targets, but deliver and report on them in a way that drives transparent and meaningful change.

2) Align marketing with actual performance to avoid greenwashing and greenhushing

Speaking of marketing…

Last year edie reported that the majority of marketing professionals feel they need to be braver and clearer in how they communicate sustainability to avoid greenwashing, but very few within the industry feel they have the capacity or knowledge to do so.

Broadly, the marketing profession is lagging behind other areas of the business when it comes to understanding and embracing the broad agenda of sustainability. Marketing is one of the key departments when it comes to negating the risks of greenwashing and many firms have published marketing and comms programmes that have been accused of twisting the truth over green claims.

It isn’t just a case of avoiding greenwash that businesses need to consider; some firms could be missing out on huge spikes in revenue by not truly aligning their marketing and communications with their actual sustainability progress.

The Sustainability Perceptions Index examines the value that could be gained or lost by major brands based on the imbalance of their perceived and actual ESG performances.

Where sustainability performance exceeds perception, Brand Finance claims that there is an “opportunity to rapidly generate value, by communicating the brand’s genuine commitment to sustainability more effectively”. Conversely, the Index warns that where perception exceeds performance “value is at imminent risk, as brands leave themselves open to public backlash”.

So, why not make 2024 the year you clue your marketing team up on all things sustainability to ensure that your communications are accurate and unlock new value opportunities moving forward?

3) Break out of the corporate echo chamber

Sustainability professionals often work alone or as part of small teams. This, plus ever-growing to-do lists, can make it hard to meet new people and take the step back you need to expand your perspective and skillset.

There is a risk that sustainability professionals operate in small circles, speaking to the same peers and therefore reverting to the same ideas and mindsets as a result. One potential way to break out of this habit and speak and listen outside of the CSR echo chamber is to enroll in some mentoring or even reverse mentoring to gain insight from future generations of sustainability activists.

Last year, sportswear brand Puma announced plans to give young environmentalists ‘a seat at the table’ in the development and implementation of its sustainability strategy. Under the initiative, called Voices of a RE:GENERATION, Puma invited four environmental activists in their 20s to provide their input on how the brand should approach key environmental and social topics. A survey from the brand also found that 71% of Gen Z feel their voices are not being heard when it comes to the environmental impact of businesses.

At edie, we launched our new 30 Under 30 class, convening the next generation of sustainability leaders from organisations of all sizes and sectors for networking and celebrations. View a full list of class members here.

You can also check out edie 24, the flagship sustainability summit, taking place in March, where we’re putting sustainability professionals in the room with climate activists, investors, NGOs and thought leaders to help forge new partnerships that drive climate action. Check out our first batch of speakers here.

4) Go beyond incrementalism

At the start of the year, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres made it abundantly clear that incremental progress was “no longer an option”.

Guterres said that “transformation is the only path toward a more peaceful world,” and while that was addressed to world leaders, it certainly applies to the business community.

Whether its switching from incremental targets to an ambitious net-zero pledge, backed by short and medium-term science-based targets, or setting up new initiatives and bodies of work to address nature loss and inequality, businesses can do so much more than the 30% reduction by 2030 just because it sounds nice.

The climate space is growing with new bodies of work to show how organisations can embrace transformation, from the beefed-up SBTi network, to the UN’s High Level Expert Group on Net Zero Emissions Commitments of Non-State Entities.

Indeed, research from CDP found that less than half a percent of 18,600 companies that disclosed climate information through its platform last year have a credible climate transition plan to net-zero by mid-century. So, let’s make 2024 the year that sustainability is switched from incremental to transformational.

5) Dive into the alphabet soup

Transition plans may well be one of the key focal for sustainability professionals in 2024.

Late last year, the Transition Plan Taskforce (TPT) delivered what it called a “gold standard” Disclosure Framework for corporate climate transition plans, which aligns with globally recognised reporting frameworks and standards.

The TPT is proposing that companies should publish one transition plan this year, and then an update in 2026. In 2024 and 2025, information material to the plan should be included in financial reporting.

The TPT is the latest organisation and framework to be added to the overflowing alphabet soup of ESG standards. The TPT does aim to streamline reporting by aligning with the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB) and draws on the work of the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ). Both are Taskforce members.

The ISSB is also taking up monitoring of the global uptake of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) from 2024. So while it seems that soup is getting bigger, efforts are being made to ensure everything is streamlined and builds into one another.

In an ideal world, aligning with the relevant frameworks for your organisation – which now extends into nature with the UK’s introduction of the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) – would see the quality of data and disclosure improve to enable financial institutions and businesses to make more informed decisions. However, sustainability reporting and disclosure is already a year-round endeavour and many will express concerns that corporates are spending too much time studying data from the last few years, rather than delivering action now and into the future.

That’s why it’s vital that organisations get to grips with the frameworks early, before they become mandatory, as was the case with TCFD in the UK.

6) Outline your approach on carbon credits

Carbon credits continue to be a contentious part of corporate approaches to net-zero. While carbon offsetting projects intend to mitigate carbon emissions by investing in endeavours that purportedly absorb or reduce an equivalent amount of carbon elsewhere, their efficacy and integrity have faced significant scrutiny.

A recent study by UC Berkeley and Carbon Market Watch highlighted a significant gap in the effectiveness of carbon prevention and removal efforts in various forest projects. The study determined that only one in every 13 credits truly delivers a net benefit in terms of climate impact and community benefits.

However, some firms are starting to walk away from the market. In November 2023, OVO published its ‘Plan Zero’ strategy report, committing to restricting its employment of carbon offsetting to only 10% of its overall emissions. This allowance applies solely to exceptional scenarios where reducing or avoiding emissions is not viable.

It seems that a lot of companies are waiting on the sidelines before fully jumping into the carbon market. Bain & Company and Natura are amongst a group of corporates that will work with the Voluntary Carbon Markets Integrity Initiative (VCMI) to accelerate the use of its claims code in a bid to clarify the credibility and usage of high-quality carbon credits that assist with decarbonisation, but this is still very much a work in progress.

The VCMI believes it is on the path to creating a much more resilient and reliable carbon market and while this shapes up sustainability professionals would benefit by exploring what role, if any, carbon credits will play in their climate action plans.

The one message that has remained consistent from all parties exploring carbon offsets is that they should not replace tangible reduction in emissions. So focus should be on reduction first.

7) Collaborate on tackling Scope 3 emissions

When it comes to emissions, the bulk of the action is required in the value chain.

Because Scope 3 carbon emissions are so wide-ranging in what they encompass and vary so significantly for different types of organisations, they are the most complex part of an organisation’s emissions. For most businesses, Scope 3 emissions also make up the lion’s share of their total emissions, and can account for more than 90% of total emissions.

Delivering emissions reductions in this area is therefore crucial if businesses are to hit ambitious climate goals.

Frameworks are emerging at pace across multiple sectors to drive tangible action on Scope 3 emissions.

In December, Bankers for Net-Zero and Rewired Earth jointly launched a new initiative intended to help businesses and governments to measure and verify supply chain sustainability, backed by more than 40 organisations.

Ten major UK grocery retailers have also joined forces with Manufacture 2030 (M2030) in a bid to help decarbonise supply chains. Additionally, global healthcare leaders from the Sustainable Markets Initiative Health Systems Task Force are in advanced discussions with energy providers in China and India to scale renewable power across their supply chains.

The main thing all these announcements have in common is collective action across the sector. Businesses in the same sector will likely procure from the same or similar suppliers, many of which are pressed for time and lack the resources to offer bespoke data to individual firms. If businesses can collaborate on supply chain engagement, data collection and actionable advice, they can spur wider action than if they engage across the value chain in isolation.

Do you have a different sustainability goal for 2023? Let us know in the comments.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie