COP26: Actions for Leaders
Filter tag: Culture & Organisational Effectiveness, Leadership Capability, Strategies for Growth
Last week, the United Nations closed their annual conference on climate change, known widely as COP26. By the end of the two-week summit, diplomats from nearly 200 countries had reached an agreement known as ‘The Glasgow Climate Pact’ to work together towards global sustainability goals. There was a great feeling of optimism as government bodies and major organisations announced their pledges, targets and commitments throughout the summit, with 60 of the UK’s FTSE 100 companies joining the UN’s Race to Zero campaign. One in three of the largest public companies in G20 countries now has a net zero target, up from one in five last year. After the summit, one thing is clear: climate change needs to be at the top of the strategic agenda for businesses moving forward.
So what does this mean for leaders? Now that pledges have been made and some regulatory standards have been outlined, what is the next step? How can you ensure that your organisation is helping to make the world a greener place rather than just ‘greenwashing’?
Following Through on Promises
While it provides a good basis for setting targets, many critics of The Glasgow Climate Pact feel that it lacks the regulatory muscle to ensure change. As a result, some feel it falls on the businesses who made pledges to make good on those promises, and for the rest of the private sector to play along.
As many leaders know, making a pledge or setting a goal is just the beginning. The challenge is in the follow-through. With net zero targets becoming a prominent part of the conversation, expect to see businesses incorporating climate goals into their strategic plans for next year. Many may choose to use the guidelines outlined by government pledges, and others may choose to go further or reach for achievable ‘quick wins’ that can easily be accomplished. But given the new focus on climate change on a global scale, businesses can no longer get away with having no sustainability targets whatsoever.
Getting Beyond ‘Greenwashing’
Not only is acting on climate change important from a regulatory standpoint, but it also matters to your customers. A survey conducted by Deloitte in May 2021 found that 65% of respondents expect CEOs to do more to make progress on societal issues, including reducing carbon emissions, tackling air pollution, and making business supply chains more sustainable. Rather than leaving it to businesses to be the change, customers are willing to act on their beliefs. 23% of consumers surveyed by Deloitte say they will switch to buying products from an organisation that shares their values on environmental issues, 42% have changed their own consumption habits to match their stance on the environment, and 21% have encouraged others to switch to a company whose values align with their own.
It is clear that customers want to do business with organisations that stand for something, but there is a difference between taking a stance and actually acting on it. In this case, being all talk and no walk could be classified as ‘greenwashing.’ This term is used to criticise businesses who go to great lengths to market themselves as being ‘eco-friendly’ and use PR initiatives to seem as though they are taking tough action on climate change, when in reality they are doing very little. In recent years, corporations such as Volkswagen, H&M, BP, Nestle, ExxonMobil, Coca-Cola, Starbucks, and even IKEA have all come under fire for this. Customers are quick to see through the smoke and mirrors to the true story, and leaders need to not underestimate their audiences.
Actions for Leaders
With all this in mind, what do leaders need to know and prioritise moving forward? The first step is to take this issue seriously and understand that this is not just the latest buzzy trend in the marketplace. This is an issue that affects us all and requires swift and decisive action. As a business leader, you play an important role in driving change. Your people, your stakeholders, and your customers are all looking to you to lead the charge and set the course for how to proceed. Here are our tips for doing this effectively:
- Get Up to Speed with Expectations: Big businesses weren’t the only ones who made pledges and set targets at COP26. It is worth reading up on the targets that were agreed in The Glasgow Climate Pact and the targets set by the countries your organisation operates in. What are they aiming to achieve, and when? Even if there are currently no set, mandatory regulations that require your organisation to meet specific targets or behave a certain way, it is always best to understand what the bigger picture looks like. You and your team can use the government’s goals as guidance when plotting out your own climate strategy, and work towards the targets they have set out on a macro level. This is a means of playing it safe as well. Just because no mandatory regulations may have been set, they could be at any minute. If you aren’t already working towards these targets, regulations may make it so that you have to adjust very quickly to catch up. Instead, it is better to operate as if the targets outlined are already law so that if and when they actually do become enforced, you will already be on the right track for compliance.
- Be Realistic: As we have discussed, making a public pledge is a good start for signalling your stance, but you need to ensure your words aren’t empty. Do not overpromise and underdeliver. When creating a climate strategy, take a look at where you can actually deliver results. This might be a series of quick wins to get you started as well as some longer-term initiatives that will be rolled out over time, but everything you are proposing needs to be achievable. No business is going to reach net zero overnight, but every organisation has small actions they can take to start working towards that goal. Take an honest look at your business and where you can improve and start there.
- Don’t Shout About It: While you should be transparent with your audiences about your stance on climate change and what your organisation is doing about it, there is no need to shout it from the rooftops. It is always better to practice rather than preach, as your customers are more interested in your actions than your words. Communicate that you are taking action and be clear on how, but do not make that the central component of your marketing or media unless what you are doing can match up to the hype. Otherwise, you may be accused of greenwashing and lose a lot of credibility and trust in the market.
- Champion Change: As a leader, your people are looking to you to take charge and set the tone for change. They aren’t going to buy into the vision if it seems like you don’t. If you are going to set forth initiatives and make sustainability a key component of your organisational identity, then that change needs to start with you. Be clear on what the stance is and what expectations the team needs to meet. Provide clear actions to follow so that everyone knows what role they play. Ensure everyone is aligned on the vision and why it matters. Adjust your own personal habits if you find that they contradict what you are looking to achieve. It can be little things to start, such as carrying a reusable water bottle or becoming more conscious of how your actions contribute to your own carbon footprint. When you lead by example, you become much more credible for your people to follow.
- Keep Up to Date: The UN’s climate summit only happens once a year, but sustainability is an ongoing conversation. There are new developments constantly, and if you are going to truly become a champion of climate change it is important you stay up to date. Incorporate checking for new updates or research into your regular newsgathering activities. Just as you should be keeping tabs on your industry, you should be keeping a finger on the pulse of climate change. By building an understanding of what’s happening, you may come to find that you need to make some adjustments in your own knowledge or capabilities. Do you need to educate yourself on any specific topics to help better inform your strategy? Do you need to better understand a topic in order to effectively communicate to your team why they should care about it? Do the regulations require you to adapt your approach or capabilities as a leader?
Sustainability is a top-of-mind business issue, but one that requires firm action. It matters not whether you feel the responsibility for leading the charge falls onto the government or the private sector; we all have a role to play. Leaders need to act as champions for change to ensure that their organisation is doing their part and not making promises they aren’t delivering on. The world will be a better place for it.