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Corporate sustainability strategies must go further and faster in the coming decade

Nick Barron

In 2005, companies could talk about 15-year time-horizons and expect a fair hearing. New plans will need to show progress much sooner than that. What should a 2030 plan look like?

In the noughties, any large company in need of a sustainability strategy was almost certain to land on 2020 as the date by which everything would be wrapped up.

Close enough to be meaningful but far enough away that you probably wouldn’t be personally accountable, 2020 had a nice numerological ring to it.

So it was, in those pre-Great Recession days, that dozens of corporate missions were launched, with the goal of significantly reducing these businesses’ environmental footprint by the magic date.

Here we are at the end of the record-breaking summer of 2019. It will be 2020 before you know it.

Next year, like astronomers awaiting the return of an orbiting comet, we will have a rare opportunity to study whether business gets held to account for the long-term promises it makes.

In the years following the financial crash sustainability dropped down the reputational agenda. But environmental concerns are now back with a vengeance, fuelled by new influencers, born of a digitally Networked Age, in which activists and movements emerge much more quickly than they did a decade ago.

The question is whether anyone will praise or punish companies for the progress they have made since the days when Destiny’s Child topped the charts? My guess is that past performance will matter less than future commitment.

A solid track record will earn a pat on the back, although some companies will be accused of setting the bar too low. Businesses that have missed targets will take flak, but it is the future that people are focused on. The real reputational challenge, therefore, is how talk to about the future. What should a 2030 plan look like?

Firstly, it needs to be big. ‘Reduction targets’ should be replaced by ‘net zero’ goals. The public has seen the rapid growth of renewables, they know electric vehicles can replace combustion engines with collective effort, they’ve seen how fast plastic straws can be eliminated when necessary.

Secondly, the plan needs to convey a sense of gravity, because the language of ‘climate emergency’ is here to stay. Sustainability strategies in the mid-noughties smacked of utopian complacency. As Dr Tali Sharot, the co-author of MHP’s New Rules of Influence, says, positive messages are more effective at inspiring change in normal circumstances, but in times of stress, warnings work better. This is a time of stress.

Thirdly, the plan should require sacrifice. In the noughties, the consensus view was that consumers were keen on green, right up until the point it cost them anything. Sustainability strategies were thus presented as being pain-free.

Today, from the rise of veganism to acceptance of plastic bag taxes, the public has demonstrated it’s ready to share some of the burden. Even investors will accept a cut: A 2019 Tilburg University study found that most Dutch workers over 50 would accept lower pensions if the money was invested sustainably (a gentle reminder that young people don’t monopolise environmental concerns). Companies will be able to employ digital technology to help people make sustainable choices more easily than was possible 15 years ago.

Above all, any new sustainability plan will need to demonstrate that action will be fast.

In 2005, companies could talk about 15-year time-horizons and expect a fair hearing. New plans will need to show progress much sooner than that.