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The evolution of corporate sustainability engagement and comms

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Early 2021 presents an interesting tension; life can feel rather static yet there is urgency and action on global challenges like never before. Sustainability has supercharged its way up the agenda of business leaders; not solely a consequence of Covid-19, but the pandemic has undoubtedly been a catalyst.

It’s an opportunity and a challenge in equal measures. All businesses should be talking about how to better balance profit against more people- and planet-positive behaviors. Some are much further ahead, but it should be clear to all that having a tight plan and platform for sustainability ambitions and actions is good for business.

Why? Customers are looking to meet their own sustainability goals, so partners that can tangibly support their progress are at an advantage. From a talent market perspective, more positive and purpose-led businesses are winning; overt progress in sustainability will be critical for attracting and retaining top talent. A real revolution in green investing means those who are on the sustainability front-foot are also cast in a more positive, investable light.

In summary, this is about future-proofing; sustainability progress can create growth and value, raise reputation and reduce risk. The challenges and goals are big and long-term, not overnight, but right now what’s needed is clarity and confidence in businesses’ ambitions and actions. It’s the time to lay out your point of view on core issues, creating a clear, relevant story and to engage key stakeholders more deeply with your commitments, behaviors and progress.

In a series of recent Corporate Climate Action European roundtables, hosted by The Carbon Trust, I discussed how corporate sustainability is evolving to meet the changing opportunities and challenges. Engagement feels a more appropriate term than communications just now, both internally and externally; it’s more about doing than saying. Here we present a series of views about what should be on the minds of leaders and influencers, in order to develop stronger, more effective sustainability engagement.

In short, it should be owned and actioned by the whole business, be made coherent through sharper storytelling, be driven by internal engagement and education, be more about action on business transformation more than ‘fixing’ and it should be an open, transparent journey you can own and report on from today onwards.

1. Make it a shared agenda

Reaching big goals like net zero is going to take huge focus and change for any business. It will involve the co-ordinated efforts of many disciplines, so the process of defining the sustainability journey and the engagement process around it should do so too. This is business critical and it should feel like a genuinely shared agenda, involving strong leadership from the top, operations, innovation, sales, people/HR and marketing. It needs to be translated and made relevant to respective teams, especially as it likely involves behavioral change. This shift brings sustainability into alignment with the business strategy, less a sideshow and more an integrated part of what you do and how you do it, as evidenced in the trend towards more integrated reporting.

2. Build a coherent platform for sustainability storytelling

One of the critical issues with sustainability is the word itself; it’s vague and over-used to the point of losing impact and sharpness. For many businesses it encompasses everything from environmental goals and actions through to inclusivity and diversity of its people and the development of fairer, more positive working cultures. In a fragmented way, it can involve actions already taken, existing initiatives, ongoing change and the ultimate goals and commitments. That’s why it’s important to develop a coherent way to wrap arms around all of the strands and create stronger storytelling. At Dragon Rouge, much of our work with corporate businesses around this topic is about forming a relevant, coherent narrative and a platform to bring the sustainability story to life; a core story and space (like a branded strategy) to make sense of all you’re doing and will do, providing a sharper tool for engagement and reporting future progress.

3. Think and grow the story from the inside out

While progress and leadership in sustainability can be a growth and reputation driver, it can’t happen without the support of the internal audience. In fact, this is really the critical audience for engagement; it needs to feel understandable, relevant and motivating, as well as helping to shape the right behaviors, otherwise there’s little chance of meeting your goals. Often the passion and motivation is there, it just needs to be shaped and given a channel.

Ownership and living by example from the most senior leaders can reinforce the importance of change, but having opportunities for people to get involved in key projects can take businesses further. At Unilever, Flex is an internal HR platform and it’s being used to connect people with sustainability initiatives they care about, building on existing interests to create a larger network of change-makers. Other strategies can include allowing individuals to use a percentage of their working hours for passion projects, or simply integrating sustainability-led behaviors into team or individual performance metrics. Create clarity and sight for this audience and reinforce the right ambitions and actions for them and you can create more momentum.

4. See it as an all-action journey

The world of sustainability governance is a complex place; choosing the right targets, commitments and reporting methods is dense terrain to navigate. The language of corporate businesses for many years has been dominated by commitments to change or statement of past actions. This narrative is in need of some change; instead of ambitions, actions will take the leading role and progress will be the future battleground.

Businesses that are leading the way in sustainability focus on transformation rather than improvement or fixing; breaking down longer-term goals, showing tangible business change. Progress fuels engagement; it grows confidence in ability to meet commitments, it can be exciting and innovative, even creative and fun. We’re all too familiar with the ‘Journey/Race to Zero’ platforms from big businesses, but those that will win the race will be those that aim for bolder transformation, putting the same emphasis on the journey as the intended destination.

5. Make it an open platform

Just as sustainability should be a shared agenda within a business, making things happen will take the efforts and minds of businesses and people outside of it. A circular economy (CE) is the real endgame, where waste and pollution are designed out, product and material value is maintained (recovery/recycling/reuse) and natural systems are regenerated. Circular models require collaboration and synergies across whole value chains, so among the CE community, sharing and cross-chain initiatives are more characteristic.

Getting to net zero, an ambition for many, will involve reducing ‘Scope 3’ carbon emissions, namely those that are not controlled directly by the business but result from implications of it in the rest of the value chain. So, this is going to take more transparency, sharing and collaboration; that will come from other businesses, sometimes even competitors, and from external experts. Leaders will be those that embrace this approach, making it more transparent, using senior people to participate in others’ external activities and inviting outside influencers and experts with aligned values to share the challenges they face in making the business create better futures for all.

Ant Cox, executive director/head of strategy at Dragon Rouge.