Sustainability: From Pledges to Progress – Key Take Outs

February 19, 2021

With sustainability high on the agenda for many businesses, particularly in light of COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in November, the World Media Group invited a panel of sustainability transformation experts to discuss how businesses make the move from talking about sustainability to undertaking concrete action. The panel was chaired by Katya Ionova, Creative Director, Business Insider, who began by asking each representative to explain the role of sustainability communications in their business.

Sofia Lotto Persio, Assistant Editor at Forbes explained that although Forbes has been covering sustainability issues for a while, it has been siloed across different channels such as business, finance or lifestyle, which hasn’t necessarily presented the whole picture. “It’s something that needs a holistic approach and needs players from all industries to get involved in, to share knowledge, share awareness and best practices,” she said. To this end, Forbes is launching a sustainability channel next month, with a more intersectional approach to coverage.

Enabling change throughout the supply chain

For Santosh Sethumadhavan, Interim Global Head of Communications, B2B, at HSBC, communications play a role in dismissing the growing narrative that businesses are part of the problem. Describing HSBC’s “Business plan for the planet”, an initiative that promotes the idea that business can be part of the sustainability solution rather than the problem, Sethumadhavan said most businesses “want to make the change, but they just don’t know how to get started and they need help.” HSBC is committing between 750 billion and $1 trillion over the next nine years to drive sustainable transitions, supporting its clients, and, importantly, their supply chains, to thrive in a low carbon economy.

Turning to Devapriyo Das, Senior Communications Advisor, Market Communications and Sustainability at Ørsted, Ionova asked him how the company came to be one of the most interesting examples of sustainability transformation. Ørsted has reduced its carbon emissions by 87 percent over the past 14 years. In 2020, the company generated 90 percent of its energy from renewable offshore, onshore wind and solar sources. They are on their way to being carbon neutral by 2025 and net zero by 2040. “Becoming sustainable is not just about changing your own business, but about changing the partners you work with and the impact you have on the globe,” he said. This means tackling the difficult challenge of decarbonising heavy industries like steel and fuel for transportation, but he believes that increasing demand will put pressure on innovators to come up with the right, low carbon solutions.

The same applies to a business such as Capgemini, which works with companies across many different sectors, including finance and energy. In the race for net zero, Emmanuel Lochon, Chief Marketing Officer, Capgemini Invent, said having a very clear action plan and measurable steps towards the next objective was essential. Research and insight into the evolution of sustainability, from energy to mobility to the circular economy, forms the basis of Capgemini’s communications strategy. Lochon cited a recent example of an actionable project that Capgemini Invent developed for the Gates Foundation, which identified 55 high-impact, climate technology projects that can help Europe meet the 2025 net zero emission targets. He said they are continuously researching how sustainability is evolving so that they can offer clients implementation support to put their own sustainability strategies in place.

Avoiding greenwashing

Ionova’s next question to the panel was how to avoid the label of “greenwashing.” According to Sethumadhavan, the problem arises when companies stand up and shout about how sustainable they are without any real transition. It can’t just be the marketing team pushing a company’s sustainability merits. “It needs a strong leadership commitment and collaboration across the organisation to make this a reality. It truly happens when the organisation comes together and recognises sustainability as a priority, then the whole organisation mobilises in that direction,” he said. “Without that, it becomes a hollow promise and maybe just another nice marketing campaign.”

According to Ørsted’s Das, maintaining credible consistent communication, sticking to the facts and putting it into context is key. “We take great pains to show how much we have actually reduced in terms of emissions, but also how we are contributing to an accelerated build out of green energy. And I think as much as numbers can be tedious and facts can be very heavy, we need them to support our story.”

Lotto Persio said that one of the biggest issues she comes up against when covering sustainability initiatives for Forbes is a lack of actionable evidence. “The press release will say, we’ve decided to create this goal and we’ll be carbon neutral by 2030. But it’s always lacking in the details as to how they’re doing it. Explaining the mechanism as to how these actions happens is very important in our coverage.” She also warns against developing initiatives that may create a catchy headline but don’t actually align with what the business is about, or its goals.

Expectations for COP26

As the topic turned to COP26, Lochon pointed out that this too should not be viewed as a marketing opportunity but as a chance to make a difference. “It’s not about sponsoring the event,” he said. For Capgemini Invent “it’s about taking part in it, taking the floor and sharing, insights in front of a panel of decision makers. It’s a very concrete and very direct way of involving ourselves.”

Continuing with the theme of concrete action, Das said the one message he would like people to take away from COP26, and particularly for some of the emerging economies, is “that green energy is now cheaper than fossil fuels in two thirds of the world’s countries. There is simply no economic reason not to act on the climate crisis,” he said. He felt that there was a lot of momentum to make sure COP26 was a success, and, with the new administration in the US, there was the potential to really kickstart the action needed for change.

Lotto Persio agreed that President Biden’s decision to re-join the Paris Agreement was not only hugely symbolic but also opens up the sustainability conversation in the US again, putting decarbonisation at the top of the agenda. “With some leadership in this topic again, I think the message will be more powerful and will echo to normal people,” she said. However, she urged companies to think about the context, framework and relevancy of any communication they were planning for COP26, as it was unlikely to filter down to the general public.

The celebration of transition

Ending with a question from the audience, Ionova asked Sethumadhavan how the media and marketing industry could credibly focus on messaging around sustainability when also faced with the physical carbon cost of the internet, which if it were a country, would be the sixth largest carbon emitter on a planet. Sethumadhavan replied that the internet is no different from steel or any other resource and “needs to be held to equally high standards as any other company.” However, with the goalposts constantly moving, Sethumadhavan believes we need to be mindful about the “celebration of transition”. If a company, or sectors like the internet, start making transitions towards being more sustainable, if we as marketers and advertisers try and find even small steps that can quantify and make some kind of meaningful impact, I think we should celebrate those things,” he said.

Wrapping up the discussion on a positive note, Sethumadhavan said that HSBC was seeing interesting ideas coming out of really small businesses around the world that showed real hope for the future. “I might be one of the few optimistic people about this but the kind of changes we’re seeing bode well for the future. People are making real change happen and really, there’s a lot to look forward to.”