True sustainability leadership means moving past PR spin

Reflecting on the Sustainability Leaders Forum, edie's senior reporter Sarah George assesses how standards of sustainability leadership have increased in recent years, and how we are getting better at assessing which companies and individuals meet them.

True sustainability leadership means moving past PR spin

I’ve been working for the edie team since spring 2018, having joined just weeks before what was then the edie Live event at Birmingham’s NEC. There is probably no better way to get your feet under the desk at a new job than not sitting at a desk at all, but running around trying to cover an event with dozens of speakers and hundreds of attendees.

At the time, sustainability targets were incremental, and sounded good. It was a time of “30% less carbon by 2030” announcements with just three companies (Tesco, BT, Carlsberg) having science-based targets verified in line with 1.5C. Nature targets were a nice-to-have and sat very much in non-science-based siloes. Social targets were often the same. It was, essentially, ‘sustainability-as-usual’. I must note that I don’t think that term was particularly popular then, but nowadays, I cannot scroll through my LinkedIn feed without it cropping up.

Thankfully, the past four years have been seen the need for more substantial, transformative systems change evolving from being a controversial talking point in industry discussions, to a basic starting point. At our Sustainability Leaders Forum in London earlier this month, the death of incrementalism was clear to see. Sessions on ensuring businesses were purpose-led, radically positive forces for people and planet had standing room only, including the B Corp breakfast briefing with Seismic.

Forum chair Solitaire Townsend remarked on how many “re-“ words she had noticed at the forefront of speeches – repairing, rewilding, regenerating, retrofitting, re-imagining, to name a few. And retrofitting and repairing were applied to the whole planet, by Ashden’s chief executive Harriet Lamb and climate scientist Sir David King respectively. Similarly, Volans’ John Elkington applied regeneration to whole national and international economies.

There are a whole host of drivers behind this gear shift in discussion. Climate science is improving, and policymakers in major economies are finally paying attention. With stronger national targets – provided they are done well – there is nowhere left to hide for laggard companies, and an extra push for those who are already ahead of the curve.

Then, there’s the pandemic. The symptoms of systems that are set up to put profit above people and planet were writ large and worsened in many cases. Talk of a green recovery has, largely and unfortunately, been just that. Talk.

All of this bears a heavy mental load. The result is a cohort of environmentally-minded professionals (and, of course, a broader general public) who are going through mixed emotions, to put it mildly. Anger, frustration and helplessness are coupled with a fierce will to work for better. In light of Russia’s war in Ukraine, there was certainly much fear, sorrow and uncertainty in the air at the Forum. But outweighing this was a sense of humanity and hope, and a need to take action.

This is not conducive to a mood in which PR spin is going to be lapped up.

Science, or something else?

My last blog on edie looked back at a January with headlines filled with greenwashing accusations. Some cases had moved beyond the case of an NGO publicly pointing the finger at a corporation, to rulings from standards agencies and even courts.

This proves that incrementalism isn’t dead yet. Those who attend the Sustainability Leaders Forum are, as the event’s name suggests, likely to be from those organisations that are further along in their sustainability journeys. Other organisations are clearly still happy to set unambitious or unclear targets, deliver average or below-average disclosures, lobby against stronger climate policies, and vocally support solutions which have proven to be problematic. They will likely still claim they’re doing something good for the environment, though, to appease customers and try and grab a few headlines.

As new climate science emerges, it becomes ever more clear that this will not be enough. The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report warned that we have just a few years left to avoid a planet which will not be “liveable” for three billion people by 2050. That will be one in three people globally.

For businesses that are not in the mindset of long-term value creation in the form of not only financials, but people and planet, scientific reports may fall on deaf ears, regardless of how much they measure the human impact. But I know from experience that what will get them listening are solid numbers around risks and rewards.

On the risk side, there is now a wealth of research on stranded assets in high-carbon sectors. There’s also regulatory and transition risk in the form of forthcoming policy changes like carbon taxes and the need for transition plans. Reputationally, there’s more than one-off PR scandals to fear. There’s also staff walkouts and resignations and trouble attracting new staff.

And, if we thought reputational risk was bad now, what will it be like in the 2040s, when it becomes abundantly clear that some organisations will not meet their 2050 net-zero targets?

Interestingly, it was the rewards side that was much discussed at the Forum. Speakers spoke of increased trust with suppliers, investors and consumers because these groups were invited along on a sustainability journey and given meaningful information regularly. Case studies around employee attraction and satisfaction were highlighted. Speakers also told stories of how honesty has helped their business to share resources with others – in some cases, competitors – turning a challenge into a cost-saving and network-building benefit.

Radical honesty

Some companies are doubtless doing a great job of selling the rewards of sustainability leadership. But, in recent weeks, I’ve seen a lot of tinkering around the edges of honesty when it comes to partnerships. Several big businesses are trying to and reap the opportunities of the net-zero transition by positioning themselves as the superheroes in need of sidekicks in their own ‘accelerator’ schemes. Among them are Amazon, Shopify, EY, Apple and IBM.

Why not just admit that you will not meet the targets that you’ve set alone? That, while you have capacity in terms of money and trained staff, you are not as agile as a smaller company – nor do you have the ultra-specific cleantech expertise?

The narrative of the big corporate as the superhero and the small start-ups as beneficiaries who should be grateful really does not sit right with me in cases where we know that the big corporate has been, historically, a sustainability supervillain.

We receive quotes from businesses claiming to be “on a journey” on a daily basis. Now, with changing legislation and regulation and even more rapidly changing investor, consumer and staff sentiment, is the opportune moment to be clear about:

  1. Where, exactly, you are on that journey (don’t just disclose that you have purchased 50 electric vehicles – that’s meaningless without knowing the size of your fleet, for example)
  2. How you plan to get where you need to be and what parts of the plan art still unknowns
  3. What you’ll do if something goes wrong

Being open and honest about this information isn’t a nice-to-have, a way to make your brand look better. It’s fast becoming a legal requirement. The UK’s TCFD mandate comes into effect on 6 April and the net-zero transition plan requirements are less than a year away. Other G7 nations are following suit, and the US is currently in the process of developing its own emissions and climate risk disclosure mandate.

All of this is to say: PR spin is certainly no longer impressing customers or investors. Soon, it won’t be legally acceptable either.

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