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Two Steps Forward

Can companies ever move past incremental approaches to climate action?

A new report focuses on how companies can move from commitment to bold action that can accelerate the transition to a decarbonized, just economy.

Fist breaking through a brick wall


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Among the many (many) reports published last week at Climate Week NYC was one focusing on how companies can move from commitment to action. And not just any action: Bold action that can accelerate the transition to a decarbonized, just economy.

"Getting Going," a sequel to last year’s report, "Getting Real," published by the management consulting firm Oliver Wyman and the nonprofit Climate Group, offers a "blueprint for a commercially smart climate transition." Based on a series of interviews with practitioners around the world, and complemented by a quantitative survey, it examines some key barriers to companies’ progress in climate action and how they might be overcome.

Here's the sentence that jumped off the page for me: "In climate, we sometimes expect incremental management tools to yield transformational outcomes."

True that.

Cover of the report called Getting Going

As the above sentence suggests, the report’s authors didn’t exactly pussyfoot around this topic. For example, in addressing the barriers, it goes head-on into the kind of explanations — or excuses — we often hear from companies about what’s hindering their climate progress: "I don’t know what to do." "I want to help but I have other priorities." "I don’t know how ambitious I should be." "I’m scared to act in case I’m criticized." And the money topic: "I don’t have the funds to act."

Sound like anyone in your organization?

One challenge, according to the report, is that corporate climate action is largely investor-driven. That may seem a good thing — after all, investors influence the board of directors, which in turn influences the C-suite — but this also can be limiting. Because it's investor-driven, responsibility goes directly to the corporate team, not to those on the front lines, Simon Glynn, one of the report’s authors, told me from Climate Week. "The people serving the markets are like, ‘This is some corporate agenda, but it's not what my customers are asking for.’"

As this agenda grows, you can't have all the decisions about sustainability happening in the sustainability department because those decisions permeate the business.

In their interviews, Glynn, who co-leads climate and sustainability at Oliver Wyman, and his co-authors also heard a lot about the function of the chief sustainability officer (CSO) and how it relates to the business. That role is shifting, Glynn said, and the shifts could be significant. Companies are recognizing "that as this agenda grows, you can't have all the decisions about sustainability happening in the sustainability department because those decisions permeate the business."

I asked Glynn, "So, do we need to be rethinking the role of the chief sustainability officer?"

"It's not something we explicitly talk about in this report, but it is a fair inference," he responded.

Breakthroughs and bravery

One other striking conclusion of the report is that "there's hardly any pressure coming from consumers," Glynn said. "And there's hardly any pressure coming from policymakers. There is some pressure coming from B-to-B customers, which is really because they're responding to their own investors, and therefore it comes back to you."

The authors created a diagnostic tool to help companies "get going." It describes four core organizational enablers that make progress possible, the barriers that may be stopping those enablers from working, and the approaches that some practitioners have used successfully to break through those barriers and drive real-world progress.

It also lists some qualities that can help companies break through internal barriers. Again, one jumped out: bravery, which it defined as "Considering transformative or radical change to the existing business and embracing uncertainty."

I asked Glynn what bravery means in a world where companies’ sustainability initiatives are under the microscope of public scrutiny, and where bold measures often receive pushback as anything from wasteful to woke.

"A lot of the feedback we heard was that people need permission to be brave, the space to be brave, and to not be jumped on if it doesn't work," he said. "The things we need companies to do are things you can't put into a business case, either in terms of money or in terms of carbon. We need them to experiment, we need to do things that haven't been done before. And we need to do them, most importantly, in a world where everybody else is doing experiments at the same time."

Glynn said he and his team heard what sounded like a plea from CSOs that they be cut a little slack. "The appeal that we're hearing is, ‘Give us some space to be brave. If you want us to be brave, which we do, then don't evaluate us in a way that stops us doing that.’"

Ultimately, the challenge presented by the report is how companies can translate their vision into operation at scale, "when it will often depend on ideas, technologies and financing that are fundamentally new."

The good news is that in the survey conducted for the report, 83 percent of practitioners said the level of change their company will need to undergo as part of its climate transition was either moderate (43 percent) or significant (40 percent). That’s a decent starting place from which to stage a transition.

But we should be well beyond starting places at this point.

"There are some bigger conversations that we should be looking at here," Glynn acknowledged. He offered what he described as some "coming-of-age questions": "Are we working it a little bit backwards? Are we expecting the metrics to set the agenda, whereas the agenda should set the metrics? Are we driving too much from the sustainability team, when the sustainability team should be more of a coach and facilitator?"

Perhaps the bigger takeaway is that companies can't simply dial up the things they're already doing. Clearly, those incremental changes aren’t moving companies, markets and economics to transition quickly enough. It’s going to take much bigger bets and companies that are bold and, yes, brave.

As Glynn put it: "Getting to scale is going to be qualitatively different."

Thanks for reading. You can find my past articles here. Also, I invite you to follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn, subscribe to my Monday morning newsletter, GreenBuzz, from which this was reprinted, and listen to GreenBiz 350, my weekly podcast, co-hosted with Heather Clancy.

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