This year is especially crucial to our national sustainability efforts, with big decisions to be made in the wake of Covid-19 and COP26 approaching in November. So it was particularly important for business, government, investors and NGOs to come together at this year’s Edie Sustainability Leaders Forum – to share insight and help drive the collective fight for a sustainable future. Below are the key themes that I saw emerge over the last three days.
1. Sustainability is not a bolt-on
Time and again this week, experts denounced the approach of treating sustainability strategy as separate to core company strategy. James Bidwell (Re_Set, Springwise) reminded us on Wednesday afternoon of that time when e-commerce was in a separate bucket. His message was plain:
“Sustainability is the new digital, and businesses that embed sustainability and diversity in their business models are the ones that will win in the future.”
Dan Botterill (Founder & CEO, Rio AI) expressed similar sentiment at a panel on the future of reporting: “sustainability reporting isn’t going to be called that – it’s just going to be called reporting.”
The same idea returned on Thursday morning, when Edie’s Luke Nicholls asked whether the ultimate goal of sustainability professionals is to make themselves redundant. In response, Chris Cook (ICI Pension Fund) encouraged sustainability professionals to ask themselves, “how can this business continue to do the right thing when I’m no longer at the table?”
2. Shoppers want to know about the impact of products, not brands
As citizens, we want to be the hero of our own sustainability story. This week provided a reminder that brands shouldn’t put themselves at the centre of their sustainability narrative. In a fascinating CSR campaigns workshop on Wednesday, Futerra’s Solitaire Townsend and Hannah Phang explained how this is especially the case with Gen Z, who are more interested in the product in their hand than the company that made it.
Given that 90% of a product’s emissions can come from the supply chain, it’s unsurprising that company-level impact is a secondary priority to shoppers. The consensus was that you need to be talking about sustainability at product-level, which is exactly what we help brands with here at Provenance.
Brands should also decentre themselves from sustainability communications by talking about customers, employees and supply chain actors. In time, people will associate your brand with any progress made. This is also an approach which minimises the risk of greenwashing.
3. Business must tell the simple truth on sustainability
This week’s speakers reminded brand leaders of the importance of moving away from green ‘spin’ towards warts-and-all honesty – which is exactly what we’re helping brands do here at Provenance.
In Wednesday’s panel on sustainability reporting, Dan Neale (World Benchmarking Alliance) spoke of how “the traditional world of CSR comms is driven by messaging, rather than what we need to see, which is boring, chunky data – it’s disclosures and reporting, it’s not ‘reports’.” As he put it, “the gloss is dross. What we need is ease of access.”
In a workshop on effective CSR campaigns, there was also a fascinating discussion about how ‘born again’ corporate brands are adopting the honest, human tone of voice normally associated with ‘born good’ challenger brands. These legacy brands are increasingly becoming more honest, vulnerable and becoming advocates for change.
I also heard a number of calls for simplicity when it comes to sustainability communications. On Wednesday, Rebecca Burgess, Chief Executive of City to Sea, argued convincingly that people are already overwhelmed; she encouraged change campaigners to “take the hype away” and ask “what’s the action that’s needed?”. Ecologi’s Crista Buznea similarly called for simpler messaging around environmental goals: “We really need to debunk this whole net zero terminology and the complexity around it – the focus needs to be on action and making it very clear and accessible to all.”
4. Togetherness is key
‘Togetherness’ emerged as another big theme at this week’s conference. Thursday morning’s plenary session provided a reminder of the importance of intersectionality in the very white ‘world’ of sustainability, and challenged us to bring new voices to the fore.
‘Togetherness’ was also discussed in terms of collaboration between brands and their supply chain actors. “We’re all each other’s keeper,” said Richard Griffiths MP, as he argued that better supplier collaboration can help us bring change faster. His thoughts were echoed by Tor Burrows (Grosvenor); she advised brands to both “choose suppliers that share your ethos/commitments,” or else to “show suppliers that there is customer demand for sustainable products.”
5. We have reason for both optimism and urgency
In the opening keynote, Tom Rivett-Carnac (Global Optimism) set out the case for us to adopt a “stubborn optimism” in the face of the reality that is coming at us. He explained that this wasn’t blind hope – it was about “accepting that genuine failure is possible” and “acknowledging that real success is also possible”. This call to arms saw Solitaire Townsend take on a new job title – tired of laying out the problems to skeptics, she is now embracing optimism in her new job title ‘Chief Solutionist’.
Jonathan Porritt (Forum for the Future) acknowledged some progress in the form of the government’s ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030. But his keynote on Thursday focused more on the need for urgency. He described today’s model of capitalism as “essentially suicidal”, reminding us that every year, $4-6 trillion of taxpayer money goes towards activities that are undermining or destroying life on earth.
By his calculations, the lag effects on scientific, governmental, corporate and consumer progress mean we’re at least 10 years off the pace. He criticised the focus on 2050 – “a wonderfully convenient date” – and called on brands to adopt an emergency response. “Whatever you’ve settled for as your net zero target, bring it forward. And make it happen.”
It was a sobering conclusion, but incredibly motivating. One thing is clear to me: this must be a year of solutions. At Provenance, we want to meet this need for urgency by helping brands navigate their impact and communicate progress honestly.
Interested in how Provenance can help you communicate your brand’s impact in 2021? Get in touch.