Corporates: back government climate targets and close your sustainability committees

On Friday, the Prime Minister announced an ambitious new target to reduce the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions by 68 per cent by 2030, compared to 1990 levels.

Businesses would be right to consider their current environmental reputation, advises Isabella Gornall
Businesses would be right to consider their current environmental reputation, advises Isabella Gornall

The new target is great news and politically smart, demonstrating global leadership ahead of the UK hosting the COP26 climate conference in 2021.

In a year defined by much delay and disruption, such a target shows that, in terms of climate action, Boris Johnson means business.

This ambition is undoubtedly spurred by the US presidential election.

Joe Biden in power is a game-changer for climate, with his pledge to make US electricity production carbon-free by 2035 and spend $2tn to upgrade the energy efficiency of four million buildings.

From a communications perspective, however, perhaps most important is that both leaders have chosen messaging that has finally become politically popular: climate action creates jobs and investment and, if you act first, you’re likely to reap the most rewards.

The UK Government’s announcement on Friday showed this rhetoric in action.

Where one might have typically seen green groups, there were comments from NatWest, Coca-Cola, Tesco and Sky.

Alison Rose from NatWest – a COP26 principal partner – is “committed to helping the Government deliver green investment and growth”, while Jason Tarry, from Tesco, is alert to the fact that his supermarket’s “supply chain and long-term business sustainability depends on the health of the natural environment”.

The call to 'build back greener' from the coronavirus pandemic is finally picking up pace and the Government is looking for British business to help.

Gaining traction with ministers will certainly be easier when you can demonstrate your environmental credentials alongside your job and economic prospects.

Businesses would be right to consider their current environmental reputation.

Where might they be criticised for falling short on ESG [environmental, social and governance] targets?

Have they formally identified the commercial risks and opportunities that might arise from future environmental events, trends, legislative or regulatory changes, both domestic and global?

What are the possible reputational risks and opportunities of their new environmental campaign?

We are seeing increasingly sophisticated scrutiny from NGOs, the investment community, and employees on these matters.

It is therefore time for senior leadership teams to shut down their sustainability committee, which might meet once a quarter, and put this agenda at the heart of board deliberation.

Sustainability strategies must be measurable in relation to all business objectives and well-communicated both internally and externally.

Actions, however well-intended, risk being seen as 'greenwashing' in the eyes of these stakeholders, the media and other businesses if they seem insincere.

Rather than risking the wrath of hardworking NGOs, business should support and work with them directly.

Credible NGO partners can provide thought leadership, ensuring corporate leaders meaningfully understand what’s at stake before developing a strategy.

Words, no matter how well thought through, need to be accompanied with genuine action.

With the UK’s new pledge to cut emissions, firms stuck in a sustainability silo must join this wave of activity or risk being left behind.

Isabella Gornall is managing director of Seahorse Environmental

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