This article was written earlier in the year before the rise in global demonstrations following George Floyd’s death. While the article focuses largely on climate change, companies might consider the general messages it contains while framing their responses to this important outcry for equality and social justice. We at SustainAbility believe that companies have an important role to play during such turbulent times and should use their voice to advocate for positive social and environmental change.
While governments and organisations must do everything possible to address the immediate impacts of COVID-19, commentators like Yuval Noah Harari have recently pointed out that “the decisions people and governments take in the next few weeks will probably shape the world for years to come.” Organizations therefore also have a responsibility to consider the medium- and long-term repercussions of their choices and ensure that — as decisions are taken ever more rapidly and with ever more expansive impacts — that these choices are consistent with “building back better” and creating the “future we want.”
Although much of the future is uncertain, the good news is that we already have solid sustainability principles — laid out in the Sustainable Development Goals agreed upon by 193 countries — from which to build a prosperous future for all. As highlighted in a recent . It follows that now more than ever we need credible leaders to argue, advocate and be ready to share the hope that it is possible for us to live in a “safe and just space” where everyone has enough resources to fulfil their human rights.
Conducting credible advocacy is no small task however. And “cutting through” in the context of a pandemic is harder still. So how can companies achieve this and drive progress on the SDGs? This article goes back to basics, exploring how consistency between a company’s brand and its approach is vital for building stakeholder trust, and identifying four ways companies can argue their sustainability objectives credibly.
1. Make your advocacy consistent with your core strengths
A company’s advocacy efforts should flow logically from its conduct in all other areas of business leadership.
Before taking a public stand on an issue, a company should identify areas that are important to its business, on which it performs well and around which there have not been (nor are likely to be) any negative revelations recently that could undermine their position. Identifying these “material” topics through a materiality assessment or business model mapping process will also help the company to work out the areas through which they can have the greatest impact whilst supporting the long-term interests of the company. A company that aligns its advocacy with its core strengths — areas in which it demonstrates best practice and leadership already — is more likely to be taken seriously and so to have impact.
A particularly powerful example of this is Climate Action 100+, a collaborative initiative with more than 370 investor signatories that engages 100 ‘systemically important emitters’ to take action on climate change. Individual companies involved have decades of investing and ESG ‘stewardship’ expertise that would individually make them credible advocates. Brought together however, their expertise is formidable and has led to some impressive achievements including but not limited to: Rio Tinto committing to stop mining coal and Glencore setting limits on its coal production, Maersk committing to net zero emissions by 2050 and Nestle committing to net zero emissions by 2050 including scope 3.
The All In Framework outlines the five attributes a company requires to lead: 1. Purpose, 2. Plan, 3. Culture, 4. Collaboration, 5. Advocacy. Advocacy is the final attribute because leadership in this area necessarily builds on the strong foundation developed through addressing the previous four elements. A company’s advocacy efforts should follow logically from its conduct in these four areas to ensure consistency and so to maintain trust.
2. Ground advocacy in the current context
A company wishing to make a stand on a particular issue must ensure its existing and planned actions to address the issue are sufficient to make its advocacy credible. In this new decade of action, there is increasing focus on the speed and impact of a company’s efforts to address an issue. Both in relation to the “total change we need to see” (e.g. see Future-Fit Benchmark) and in comparison to peers (e.g. see World Benchmarking Alliance).
A company that aligns its advocacy with its core strengths areas — in which it demonstrates best practice and leadership — is more likely to be taken seriously and so to have impact.
Taking climate action as an example, in October 2019, eleven non-profits wrote an open letter to American CEOs urging them to adopt a science-based climate policy agenda in line with achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. These stakeholders are demanding not just change, but a specific level of change – targets are at least as ambitious as IPCC recommendations. Companies that do not respond risk being labelled as “new denialists,” a concept that encompasses organizational activities that are arguably stalling progress rather than catalyzing it (such as incremental policies and arguments that an as-yet undeveloped technology will “save” us). To be credible on climate, companies increasingly need to set context-based goals based on sound science and be disclosing progress on their goals through verified third parties.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, experts suggest that stakeholder expectations are rising further still. Not only has the global response demonstrated how resources and money can be mobilized in the face of a crisis, but regulators are recognizing the importance of integrating resilience and long-term thinking into their policy through increasingly introducing sustainability criteria into their support packages.
Now more than ever, business advocates must be able to demonstrate that they are doing all they reasonably can to maximize their contribution to advancing positive progress for people and planet.
Review corporate memberships
In April 2019, Shell announced it would not renew membership of the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers body due to “material misalignment” on climate policy. In response, the co-lead of the influential coalition of institutional investors Climate Action 100+ commented: “This is an industry first. With this review Shell has set the benchmark for best practice on corporate climate lobbying not just within the [o]il and [g]as [sector] but across all industries.”
That Shell has taken this action puts pressure on other companies and associations that continue to lobby against progressive climate policies, including the latest 47 companies that Climate Action 100+ judge to have inconsistent trade association memberships and those that organizations such as Influence Map continue to highlight.
With this precedent set, companies that wish to advocate on any issue can now expect pushback if they do not align their corporate memberships with their publicity.
In whatever position a company finds itself, transparent communication through digital channels, reports and more targeted engagement is essential for demonstrating credibility on an issue because it enables stakeholders to hold a company to account.
Finally, while some companies overstate their achievements in relation to social and environmental issues and are accused of “greenwashing,” other companies can lose value by not communicating the good work they are doing well enough. In whatever position a company finds itself, transparent communication through digital channels, reports and more targeted engagement is essential for demonstrating credibility on an issue because it enables stakeholders to hold a company to account.
When a company is deciding on which topics to advocate, stakeholder engagement can also be particularly useful to uncover areas for improvement, identify longer term and less predictable risks, and even build support. External engagement with investors can deepen understanding of expectations and any concerns (e.g. Shell’s trade association review was a response to investor pressure). Moreover, external engagement with civil society can present opportunities for powerful partnerships as Yvon Chouinard and others have demonstrated through their 1% For the Planet initiative.
An enticing future for all
As the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic spread, we need businesses to advocate for long-term and sustainable approaches more than ever. While it is notoriously difficult to predict the future, we can be confident that a world in which companies direct their words and actions consistently towards progressing the Sustainable Development Goals will be a rich and enticing world in which to live. The more companies that advocate and hustle for the goals to be progressed, the more likely we are to achieve them and build this future. We at SustainAbility also think that this advocacy should be done thoughtfully and in a manner that is consistent with companies other actions. To this end, we’d love to hear what you think and whether any of our suggestions for how to ‘cut through’ have or might be helpful for you in your advocacy journey?