COP26 is an important moment for sustainability teams. It is driving sustainability further up the corporate agenda, giving it more traction and attention internally. This means sustainability professionals have the opportunity to be far more forthright in terms of their plans and objectives.
Historically, sustainability teams had to lay considerable groundwork before their voices were heard, but with the climate emergency’s global resonance bringing together commercial and business strategies, sustainability strategies and conversations about the fundamental purpose of a business, the stakes and rhetoric have never been higher or taken more seriously. We have an opportunity for increased, more meaningful table time with senior execs and the moment must be seized.
Here are some ways to make the most of it.
1. Use the moment to secure long-term commitments. Using COP26 to achieve measurable and impactful change is about ensuring long-term ambitions are set, alongside multi-year action plans and clear KPIs — whilst not forgetting immediate action. Sustainability teams have an opportunity to leverage the coverage and dialogue that COP26 is generating to secure senior buy-in to long-term change. When COP26 is in the rear-view mirror, businesses need to be working against a clear plan which has been set, committed to and signed-off at the highest level whilst sustainability was at the top of the agenda.
We have an opportunity for increased, more meaningful table time with senior execs and the moment must be seized.
2. Use COP26 as a chance to inspire, not just to challenge. Sustainability action should be positioned as an opportunity for growth, differentiation and brand/customer loyalty, alongside the message of a climate (and social) imperative. It might seem as if COP26 is all about focusing on what we are not doing and facing up to the work that needs to be put into drastic change. While that is true, this moment is not just about looking at things negatively. Tackling the climate and the social imperative is a chance to improve the way we do business and taking this stance around COP26 can help galvanize people. Talk about how a changed organization might benefit through innovation, a renewed focus on its purpose or a changed relationship with key stakeholders across the value chain.
3. Talk about it in the right way. In much the same way as COP26 itself, the more businesses can bring diverse voices together, the better chance that commonalities can be found, new ideas developed and problems solved. Internally, it is important to talk to colleagues at all levels within an organization about why sustainability-driven change is important, what long-term, fundamental work needs to be done and how action and change can benefit them in their role. Externally, what you say must hold up under scrutiny because the spotlight on greenwash will be heightened by COP26. Effective external engagement isn’t about being perfect, you must have substance behind what you are saying. The trick is to be honest. Express if you are not there yet but be clear of your intent.
4. Inspire action through storytelling and best practice examples. Storytelling is a powerful tool for sustainability teams to wield. By leveraging the urgency of COP26, storytelling helps convince senior stakeholders to act but also gives those internal stakeholders the tools, stories and confidence to make the case themselves. This can be enhanced with examples of what other businesses are doing to show what can and is being achieved. It can also be brought to life with insight from engagement with stakeholders — be it customers, investors or employees — to show how changes are influencing behavior or opinions.
Finally, some advice for global brands.
Climate change will cause disruption somewhere along every value chain. Whilst its impacts will be different around the world, it will be those businesses that take long-term, sustained action aligned to their impacts and capabilities, underpinned by a clear purpose, that will be able to navigate the risks and maximize the opportunities most effectively.
An approach that can be clearly articulated at a global or national level and acted on within individual markets can help everyone feel a part of the solution. A balance should be found between being an active participant in businesses’ global strategy and helping them respond in the best way to meet local needs and challenges.