Three critical sustainability issues to consider in 2023

Jennifer Motles, chief sustainability officer at Philip Morris International (PMI), looks at how nature, society and transparency look set to shake up the world of corporate sustainability in 2023.

Three critical sustainability issues to consider in 2023

As the chief sustainability officer at PMI, I’m familiar with skepticism. Initially hesitant about leaving my position as a human rights lawyer working at the United Nations in 2015, to develop the sustainability efforts of a legacy tobacco company, I can totally relate to that skepticism.

Undecided whereas working for a tobacco company was the right way to drive change, now, looking back, I’m glad I made the leap. Companies across industries have increasingly had to reckon with their impact on society and the environment, and PMI is no exception. For us, this has meant disrupting our traditional business from the inside out and leading the industry in an unprecedented transformation toward a smoke-free future. As such, addressing the health impacts of cigarettes (aiming to make them obsolete) is our core priority.

Yet, as the impacts of climate change unfold in front of us, so too do the most pressing sustainability issues of the moment. As we embark on a new year together, I want to highlight three areas that are top of mind for me. My hope is that together we can see real progress on these (and many other urgent challenges) amid a rapidly changing landscape in the year ahead. There’s no time to waste.

Climate justice

It was encouraging to see climate justice and the links between environmental and social issues take center stage at COP27, but we can’t stop there. Whether we are successful in avoiding the worst climate change impacts will depend in large part on the extent to which the international community takes a human rights–based approach to mitigating and adapting to climate change. Inequality exacerbates the effects of climate change, more deeply affecting those living in poverty, making them even more vulnerable to its extreme impacts. These include increased forced migration or population displacement due to food insecurity, poor sanitation, and lack of access to water.

At PMI, we aim to contribute to climate justice at the different stages of our value chain and have implemented several programs geared toward climate protection, as well as the protection and promotion of human rights. While PMI is making good progress in this area, we recognize that much more needs to be done. We also know that we cannot create change alone. Everyone has a role to play, and together we should mitigate our impacts on the planet and people—especially on those who are vulnerable and facing heightened human rights risks due to climate change.

Biodiversity and water protection

Protecting biodiversity is critical to maintaining the quality and resilience of ecosystems on which both business and society rely. In the wake of COP15, which concluded last December with a new landmark agreement on protecting global biodiversity, we are especially mindful that when it comes to preserving ecosystems, developing nature-based solutions, and building natural capital, there’s a real need to create strong and collaborative connections between different stakeholders, including the private sector, science, and policymakers, in order to lead to nature-positive solutions.

In December 2022, PMI was proud to announce new ambitions on biodiversity and water that align with the Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework. These goals strengthen PMI’s efforts to address the environmental impacts of our business operations, which we currently manage through two main strategies: Tackle Climate Change and Preserve Nature. We also intentionally structured the new ambitions to maximize their impact around a 10-year span, from 2023 to 2033, and are eager to work alongside our stakeholders to ensure these aims are met in the decade ahead.

Transparency in reporting

As sustainability matures and gains importance inside and outside PMI, the question of how to measure ESG performance is something many continue to grapple with. We have long expressed our support for more rigor in sustainability-related reporting and disclosures—and not just for companies, but also for ESG ratings and related products. There is a need for greater transparency, more robust methodologies, and better clarity on definitions and assumptions. We certainly welcome recent developments leading to more consistency in standards under strong governance frameworks.

Accordingly, we at PMI have focused on developing a clear and accepted process for establishing concrete definitions, documentation, and controls for sustainability with the aim of standardizing how we measure ESG performance. During 2021, we developed a bespoke Sustainability Index to measure and communicate progress toward achieving our 2025 Roadmap using a set of clearly defined and verifiable metrics. Meanwhile, our ESG KPI Protocol establishes a framework that is both specific to our company and clearly defines KPIs that can provide our organization with a method for making the connection between our company’s purpose, strategic direction, financial performance, and environmental and social considerations.

As companies continue to set ambitious climate goals, we encourage them to be transparent in their progress to ensure greater accountability as we collectively work toward a more sustainable future.

As we take on a new year and new challenges together, transforming for good and driving positive change forward, I hope we can all remember Hemingway’s ‘The Sun Also Rises’ and his comments on how change happens— little by little, then all of a sudden. So let us continue, knowing that progress may not be readily visible, but that each step forward makes a difference.

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