The real problem with corporate climate change

Amy Marshall

By Sally Bibb, Amy Marshall

Bottom line, climate promises are currently falling woefully short according to the UN, and oil companies are still reporting record profits. In the face of shorter-term geopolitical crises, climate is getting deprioritised.

With a threat of one billion climate refugees by 2050, this is a call to action for leaders who want to spearhead solutions to this economic and humanitarian threat. Why do so many businesses fall behind on their sustainability goals, or even worse, why do they have a climate strategy that is destined to fail, or do not even have one at all?

The simple answer is a crisis of leadership. Climate progress starts with people. Changemakers have certain inherent traits, and the companies doing it best have positively influenced how their employees think and approach this challenge together. However, what happens when your company does not have a chief sustainability officer who is leading the charge?

Whether externally hiring for the type of role or broadening someone’s responsibilities to address the company’s sustainability efforts, selecting the individual who has the right mindset is non-negotiable. The three factors successful sustainability leaders have? Determined leadership, understanding who you are and what you can achieve, and breaking down boundaries to create change.

Avoid miscasting for effective climate leadership

When it comes to sustainability leadership, the most important attributes are an understanding of the reality of the climate crisis, a dogged determination to think beyond normal constraints, and a natural ability to build internal and external bridges in a world full of silos.

These are the people who, come hell or high water, are driven by making a difference. They’re gutsy. And they’re people who have appeal and personal power that means they can rally others.

In addition to not taking no for an answer, these leaders are collaborators and connectors who are also comfortable “colouring outside the lines”. For example, it might be the outspoken leadership of Proctor & Gamble’s Virginie Helias who has made sustainability a core business strategy and challenged the issue of Scope3 emissions or the collaborative spirit of Unilever’s Rebecca Marmot who has looked outside the company’s portfolio with its Partner with Purpose program to make a positive impact.

Getting a grip

Once selecting someone with these traits, this individual must learn the strengths and weaknesses of the organisation to overcome any difficult obstacle or make a big change. They also must get all the company’s team members on board.

Whether an executive, manager, or employee, it’s important that everyone understands how they can help achieve climate goals, where they can improve something within their sphere of influence, or where they might need to ask for help.

To calibrate this, sustainability leaders can take these three steps to identify some pragmatic actions:

  • Read Bill Gates’ How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. If your sustainability leader doesn’t have a visceral response to this book, they’re unlikely to become an inspirational sustainability leader. Gates’ book explains the climate crisis and how to meet obstacles that may arise in the process, including the difficulty for businesses to get to net zero and optimistic steps for individuals to get there. He also dives into activities that create the most greenhouses gasses, how to eliminate them, and what these adjustments could cost; giving leaders a roadmap to assess their company and how to move forward.
  • Read your company’s annual report to figure out what’s been committed to, if it’s enough, and where you can play your part. This includes looking at sustainability benchmarks and making sure the right systems are in place to track progress and that your company has the infrastructure and staff to turn intention into reality, mitigating any potential greenwashing claims.
  • Read your job description (and probably amend it) so that you hold yourself accountable for your part in turning around climate change. In addition, figure out how to amend other job descriptions or define responsibilities so everyone in the organisation will do the same.

Taking action

Intent is not enough. Effective leaders understand what things they can control and seek to exert control over important things they currently do not have control of. They also collaborate externally to share accountability, pledge joint actions, and thus accelerate the progress they are trying to make.

Looking inward, an important step is to understand what things are already within a company’s capabilities. For example, in looking at the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), an organisation should not try and solve for all 17. Start with one or two – clean water and sanitation or sustainable cities and communities – that align with your business strategy and own it end-to-end. The result will be a bigger impact, netting better business outcomes.

For example, say you’re a cosmetic company that chooses to set benchmarks against SDG 12: Ensure Sustainable Consumption and Productions Patterns. How the business tackles this SDG should go beyond a macro strategy of how you make your product to be something that all employees understand and why it is relevant to their responsibilities.

In practice, this can mean:

  • For events, planning sales meetings that ban single-use plastics and for which the leftover food goes to shelters or food banks
  • In marketing, creating incentive programs for customer recycling and reuse
  • In facilities, making sure all factories and offices are as energy efficient as possible whether lighting, HVAC systems, etc.

While the company might only focus on one or two SDGs, that does not mean others cannot be addressed. For SDGs where the business does not have the proficiency to enact meaningful change, form uncommon partnerships that account for additional phases of your product’s lifecycle. For example, shoe and outdoor apparel company Timberland partnered with Omni United to design a tire that when worn and ready to be discarded, could be recycled for use in the production of their shoes and boots.

In addition, when it comes to looking outward, sustainability leaders should stop thinking about operations as a linear supply chain. Päivi Makkonen of Neste furthered her company’s approach to having a circular economy by focusing specifically on improving dialogue about sustainability with global suppliers. Small gains add up, and in this way, everyone is contributing.

Climate change is like no other threat we’ve faced before. It requires special leaders who are driven to play their part and who won’t stop until the job is done. Waiting for others to carry the water will leave us without a drop to drink.

About the authors

Sally Bibb PA strengths and talent expert
Amy Marshall
Amy Marshall PA energy expert

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