Seven top tips for embedding purpose and super-charging sustainability at your organisation
For many, a new year brings a fresh sense of motivation and purpose. With that in mind, edie recently hosted two online Inspiration Sessions, in partnership with Seismic, to set the scene on what sustainable business will look like in 2022. Here, we round up the key takeaways.
Hosted in partnership with edie’s B Corp partner Seismic, the Sessions were broadcast on Thursday (6 January) and were dedicated to turning the global ambitions of COP26 into sustainable business actions, and balancing profit and purpose in 2022.
The afternoon began with a high-level panel debate on how trends seen at COP26 – and the summit’s outcome itself – will shape business leadership this year. Expert representatives from Virgin Media O2, Ikea, Willmott Dixon and Seismic took part.
There was then a 45-minute masterclass providing advice on certifying under B Corp, one of the world’s most esteemed sustainable business certification schemes.
Here, we round up seven of the top tips offered by the panellists. You can also watch the sessions, in full, on-demand by clicking here.
1) Ensure your targets are credible and science-based
Reflecting on her work as a COP26 partnership advisor, Ikea’s country sustainability manager for the UK and Ireland Hege Saebjornsen summarised how the last quarter of 2021 marked a “real push” towards ensuring that corporate sustainability targets are credible and rooted in science. Drivers include improved legislation as well as increased scrutiny from investors and consumers.
For reducing emissions, the science and the support for corporate alignment has never been clearer. The Race to Zero has received the support of the majority of Britain’s largest businesses, after strengthening membership requirements. The Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi) has seen a groundswell in applications and is poised to increase the minimum target-setting requirement to 1.5C as it rolls out its new Net-Zero Standard.
In 2022, science-based targets for other corporate sustainability topics are also likely to be forthcoming, including nature. At the same time, climate risk reporting will become ever more standardized. Leadership will mean following and participating in these trends.
2) Assess – and maximise – your net-zero ‘ripple effect’
At this point, it’s well-documented that most businesses will have higher indirect emissions than direct, meaning that Scope 3 targets will be a key part of any credible net-zero plan. Speakers pointed to a shift in corporate attentions to their ability to leverage decarbonisation across – and beyond – their value chain.
Willmott Dixon’s chief sustainability officer Julia Barrett argued that businesses worried about the fact that the world is still not on track to avoid the worst effects of global heating post-COP26 should leverage all key touch-points to create a decarbonisation “ripple effect”. “Over the past ten years, we were focusing on our own footprint,” she said. “The ripples we create from being a business are 99 or 100 times higher than that.”
Similarly, Virgin Media O2’s head of sustainability and social impact Will Kirkpatrick urged listeners to have a “laser focus” on the actions that will have the most real-world impact, which may well sit beyond direct operations.
3) Properly link environmental and social sustainability
The Covid-19 pandemic prompted much discussion – and realisation – around the ways in which public health, environmental sustainability, community sustainability and wellbeing intersect. The language of the ‘green recovery’ became mainstream, even if action from nations and corporates did not match talk. And, heading into 2022, focusing on the just transition is beginning to become a legal requirement as well as the right thing to do.
As Seismic’s Lewis put it: “The environmental and social agendas cannot be now looked at in isolation. They’ve got to be looked at together. That’s one of the reasons we advocate for the B Corp movement.”
Willmott Dixon’s Barrett also pointed to the drop in global emissions caused by Covid-19 lockdown restrictions in 2020. This is about consistent with the level of reductions we will need to see annually to achieve a 1.5C world, but the onus is now on leaders to prove that these reductions can be achieved while helping people to improve their quality of living.
4) Rethink your approach to collaboration
An edie event would not be complete without a mention of the need for collaboration. However, much has been said in recent months, with the world still off-track to delivering the Paris Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), about the need to go beyond partnerships for the sake of partnerships.
Seismic’s chief executive and co-founder Paul Lewis said: “I think collaboration is the way out of the hole that we’re in. I think we are all, in part, inspired by the attempts at collaboration seen at COP26, but collaboration falls down where there is mistrust and, at the moment, I think there is a lot of that at the political level.
“The corporate level is where we can make some great strides.”
Lewis pointed to the many sector-specific collaborative forums available for business collaboration on sustainability, as well as the overarching Race to Zero and B Corp movements. Within the B Corp movement, there are groups for businesses in the same countries as well as an international ‘climate collective’.
Lewis argued that, “in sharing best-practice, you are demonstrating leadership”. Benefits include being viewed as a transparent company, and reciprocal knowledge-sharing that could save time and money.
5) Ditch the sustainability vs. profitability debate
In the months leading up to the publication of the Heat and Buildings Strategy, and in the months that have followed, much has been said in the UK’s mainstream media and in political spaces about the cost of the net-zero transition, with naysayers arguing that it will push up costs and be bad for business at the least convenient moment.
Most in the green economy would, of course, disagree. As has the UK Government, which stands by the rhetoric of green growth and was keen to promote UK Plc at COP26. Seismic’s Lewis explained that the so-called “great resignation” of 2020 and 2021 is now becoming a “great reshuffle”, with many people using ESG or CSR as their “first filter” when choosing a new role.
“Those that are highly mobile and highly employable are voting with their feet,” he summarised. “They want to work for a company that is a force for good.”
“One of our commercial growth opportunities is to mainstream sustainable and healthy living….people will need solutions to decarbonise their daily lifestyles and homes,” Saebjornsen added, commenting on sustainability as a growing differentiator for customers. She also noted that sustainable products can, if properly thought out, result in cost savings for customers, such as Ikea’s second-hand furniture offering.
6) Update your mission statement, and stand by it
Of course, taking all of the above pieces of advice is all well and good until the business faces a challenge and the argument may be posed to move sustainability down the agenda.
To overcome this issue, speakers across the two sessions emphasised the importance of building a strong culture of purpose and continually reminding decision-makers that deviation from this purpose will result in criticism from key stakeholders. It was acknowledged that this should not be seen as a quick fix or tick-box exercise, but an ongoing change in mindset and culture. Nonetheless, an updated statement of purpose or simply giving the environment and society virtual “seats” on the board may help.
“If words and deeds don’t align right from the top of the organisation, it does not matter how many stories you tell or reports you publish – people will see the gaps,” said Willmott Dixon’s Barratt.
“I appreciate that not every organisation has such a clearly defined purpose as [Ikea] at the moment, but that is really important. Then, you can create the story behind every action you take, building a ladder up to that bigger piece,” Saebjornsen added.
7) Involve people from all parts of your organisation
In outlining how they created cultural change and embedded sustainability as a thread throughout all activities, rather than an activity happening in a silo, representatives from B Corp-certified brands on the panels emphasised the importance of involving employees from different departments.
Gousto’s head of proposition strategy Hugh Lewis and Pukka Herbs’ mission lead Georgia Phillips both explained that their organisations have ‘B Teams’, comprised of people from various functions who are tasked with contributing to the certification process. This includes data collection and reporting, taking targeted actions to improve scores and maintaining focus post-certification. At Pukka Herbs, one way in which focus is maintained is by tying all employee bonuses to three B Corp-related KPIs.
Similarly, innocent drinks has ‘B Keepers’, the firm’s head of force for good Karina O’Gorman revealed. Representatives are chosen to act as ‘protectors’, ‘activators’, ‘agitators’ or ‘ambassadors’ depending on their skillset.
When asked for their advice on how to select representatives, the experts’ revealed that they took slightly different approaches. O’Gorman recommended finding people already passionate, while continuing to explore ways to “unlock that passion” in others. Gousto’s Lewis recommended ensuring that all business functions that are important in achieving key goals are represented. Phillips, meanwhile, recommended choosing those with the appropriate knowledge, networks and expertise.
edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum – 7-9 March 2022
The online events form part of the run-up to edie’s multi-award-winning Sustainability Leaders Forum, which is back and bigger and better for 2022, re-uniting business leaders, sustainability practitioners, policymakers, investors and NGOs around a common goal: to turn the ambitions of COP26 into meaningful climate action and truly transform business, for good.
Over three days in London and online, you will be connected with peers through expertly facilitated networking sessions; inspired by powerful keynote talks from global industry leaders; immersed in a series of themed plenary discussions and dynamic best-practice presentations; and challenged to think differently in our interactive panel debates and co-creative workshops.
Please note that the Forum was originally due to take place on 1-2 February but has been moved to 7-9 March, to ensure collaboration and celebration can take place in person. Enhanced digital tickers will also be availavble.
Sarah George and Matt Mace