The world needs a new type of corporate climate leader

The cost of living crisis swells, war breaks out and climate scientists issue their most sobering warnings yet. But there's still time to act, and for corporates, that means transforming into activists that represent people and the planet.

The world needs a new type of corporate climate leader

Welcome to March 2022. Two years on from when lockdown restrictions were issued in the UK and a lot has changed. Armageddon trends on Twitter as Russia puts its nuclear deterrence forces on high alert while Liz Truss cosplays as a military leader; the IPCC’s latest report is described by UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres as an “atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership” and the UK continues its expansion into North Sea drilling amid an energy price crisis. So much for the green recovery.

March 2022 also marks edie’s Business Leadership Month. Under the banner of “Time to Transform, this month will see our editorial team deliver an array of thought-provoking content across all mediums, tapping into the sustainability movement. And if ever there was a time to transform, it’s now.

Businesses are only just bouncing back to a new sense of normal as restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic are lifted for some nations. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the IPCC’s headline fact that historic failures to cut emissions and slow progress on adaptation efforts have left more than 3.3 billion people – half of the world’s population – “highly vulnerable” to the impacts of the climate crisis, have left some in the corporate sphere wondering what their role is in a society and planet that is slowly collapsing in on itself.

Historically, too many businesses have focused on their profits in a capitalist economy, generating profits for shareholders, often in disregard for the planet and its people. Even now, some companies are using Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a means to exact even more profitability.

There has been a counteract to this “profitability at all costs approach”. The sustainability movement is fledgling, but already boasts more than four decades of transformative approaches to corporate stewardship. From the triple bottom line approach to the pursual of “white swans,” more businesses are becoming purpose-driven to generate positive change.

Yet as the understanding of the severity of the climate crisis grows amongst the public, civil servants and investors, so too does the demands of these stakeholders on businesses. An iterative approach to decarbonisation is no longer enough, a siloed sustainability team won’t deliver enough impact, and the data being disclosed still isn’t of high enough quality.

As the world cascades into even more chaos, there is a need for a new type of corporate climate leader.

Lessons from Ukraine

The situation in Ukraine is heart-breaking, yet the nation and its people are rallying around the courage and stoicism of its Prime Minister Volodymyr Zelensky. Whereas many national leaders may have chosen to seek refuge, content that their own family and house were in order, Mr Zelensky has stayed to fight alongside his troops.

It’s hard to imagine a few other prominent leaders staying to fight on the streets, yet Mr Zelensky is anything but a traditional politician. Before entering politics, he was on television on the Ukrainian show “Servant of the People”, which is also the namesake of his political party.

Four years ago, when the UK was enshrining a net-zero target into law, Mr Zelensky was promoting Paddington 2, whereby he voiced the well-known bear for the Ukrainian version of the film. Now he stares down the enemy and rallies his people.

Mr Zelensky’s courage is commendable, but so too is his understanding of his role in society. He is quite literally serving his people. Through the lens of the climate crisis, new business leaders need to emerge that capture this ideology.

The IPCC’s latest report warns that more than 3.3 billion people – half of the world’s population – are “highly vulnerable” to the impacts of the climate crisis. Traditionally, corporate sustainability has been about protecting your own house from the crisis, ensuring your staff and products can capture the opportunities of a low-carbon movement. That’s no longer enough.

Now, more than ever, businesses need to do more. Having your own house in order is a prerequisite for any responsible business, namely through the public formation of a net-zero target that covers Scope 1 and 2 emissions.

But businesses are highly dependent on their value chain, from the farmers in developing countries, to the customers they are selling their products and services to. Last year, CDP warned that businesses could face up to $120bn in additional costs across their supply chains from the impacts of climate and environmental breakdown in the next five years, yet more than half (56%) of suppliers do not have a target to reduce emissions, namely because they feel they don’t have the resources or guidance to do so.

The corporate climate leaders we need now are the ones who inspire action across the value chain. They shift entire markets and sectors to a more sustainable future.

I’m not a sustainability professional, but I am a consumer and am therefore part of the value chain. When I have my morning coffee I become part of a thread, one that links through the brands I buy from to the farmers in Kenya and Brazil. I need to know that my purchasing decisions are making a difference because the brands I buy from are helping the value chain – and those most at risk from the climate crisis – improve resiliency, increase sustainable practices and secure better income.

I don’t want to associate with brands that are doing ‘less bad’ I want to build relationships with corporate activists that are shaping the future.

Listen to the noise

Mr Zelensky shows us that leadership can emerge from unlikely places. For too long the boardroom and the halls of governments have been entrenched with the ideate that success derives from a privileged upbringing or by aligning with the adage that “it’s not what you know but who you know”.

The Ukrainian Prime Minister highlights that it is indeed, “what you know” and that leadership can spring from unlikely places. It can emerge from one schoolchild, donning her yellow anorak and kickstarting a global climate strike movement. It can surge forward and enrapture an entire audience as was evident with Barbados’ prime minister Mia Amor Mottley’s rallying cry at COP26. It can even form over years, like Helena Helmersson, who spent five years as sustainability manager, before becoming H&M’s first female chief executive.

New leadership emerges in the void of where leadership should be. It is not Marcus Rashford’s role to champion free school meals for children and it is not the job of Elizabeth Wathuti to provide a prominent voice for African communities during climate negotiations. Yet they took up a cause because they felt disheartened by a perceived lack of leadership. But they also felt inspired to act because they listened to the communities they are surrounded by, just like Mr Zelensky.

Indeed, it has been claimed that listening is the most important skill for business leaders. For those willing to open their ears and listen, what will they hear?

They’ll hear the ‘atlas of human suffering’ illustrated by the most recent IPCC report.

They’ll hear the entangled stories of bravery and devastation facing the citizens of Ukraine as nations head out to a war built on fossil fuels.

They’ll hear the dissatisfaction from the UK people as the void of trust in the political system widens further.

But for those truly willing to listen, they’ll hear the signs of hope. I’ve spoken to many sustainability professionals who are great at listening. They listen to the science, warning us that 1.5C and net-zero targets are a necessity. They listen to their stakeholders, who are demanding that disclosure, data and delivery of targets are improved. Notably, they listen to their children, who ask them how their job role is combatting the climate crisis.

Leaders can emerge from unlikely places because they listen to marginalised voices, the ones most affected and disadvantaged by the status quo. They learn the real impacts of inaction and help others rally around a joint cause.

The corporate climate movement has made great strides, but to respond to the ecological, societal and climate breakdowns, compassion for the planet and its people needs to sit at the heart of a businesses purpose. Your license to operate isn’t the same as it was two years ago and the leaders will be the ones who realise that a business is only as resilient as the communities it relies on.

edie’s Business Leadership Month

Under the banner of “Time to Transform, March 2022 will act as edie’s Business Leadership month, with the editorial team primed to deliver an array of thought-provoking content across all mediums, tapping into the sustainability movement.

With the Sustainability Leaders Forum and Awards (scroll down for more information) moved to March to allow for in-person events, edie is transforming its website into a month-long content focus on the topic of business leadership.

If you’re interested in being interviewed or providing a blog, please contact [email protected].

Comments (1)

  1. Howard Minett says:

    Well written. It truly is time for all hands on deck, everywhere. But as we do begin to surface, take good care.

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