Employers have diverse responsibilities today and they must keep on top of them if they want to attract the best talent. More than ever, skilled professionals want to work in jobs they are passionate about and for companies their values align with. For many, sustainability and climate action are a high priority.
Last year, Reuters highlighted five sustainable business trends to watch. They were climate transparency, the circular economy and resource efficiency, overcoming the ‘would if we could’ excuse, better digital human rights and workplace equality.
But that was before Covid-19 hit and threw the world into disarray. After a turbulent year for businesses in every sector, is climate action still a priority? Accenture’s Karen O’Regan is hopeful.
Companies have an opportunity to imbue their Covid-19 recoveries with greener practices, she told us, and need to stop putting long-term sustainability over short-term financial returns. So, what steps are business leaders taking now to secure a more sustainable tomorrow?
The world’s most sustainable companies
As always, paying attention to best practice is key. A good starting point is the businesses deemed the most climate active in the world, such as those compiled by Canadian research firm Corporate Knights and revealed at the World Economic Forum last year.
Corporate Knights’ Global 100 ranks sustainable companies around the world with revenue in excess of $1bn. Topping the list in 2020 was Ørsted, a renewable energy provider based in Denmark.
According to Forbes, Ørsted has set a precedent by leaving fossil fuels behind and investing instead in offshore wind power. This helped the company reduce its carbon emissions by 83pc.
Ørsted has also developed 20 different sustainability programmes. Its decarbonisation initiative, for example, will help the company become coal-free by 2023. Its offshore windfarms already deliver green power to more than 13m people, and the plan is to grow that to 50m by 2030.
Almost half of the companies that made the top 100 are based in Europe, with Accenture Ireland coming in at number 20. Corporate Knights CEO Toby Heaps told Forbes: “The big takeaway when looking at Ørsted and the other companies doing well is how fast the pace is speeding up in terms of the growth in green, clean markets.
“In this age of climate and carbon constraints and an emerging climate economy, these companies are positioned to succeed.”
In a follow-up blog post about the 2020 Global 100, Corporate Knights said: “The companies included represent a wide range of sectors, from aerospace and apparel to wireless telecoms groups and wholesale power companies.
“The largest sector was financial services, with 18 representatives, including 12 banks, suggesting that investors and lenders are more advanced in their understanding of how taking sustainability issues into account can help their business performance.
“BYD – China’s biggest electric car maker – is a new entrant, along with Hong Kong’s Vitasoy, evidence that while the world’s largest economy lags behind European and North American nations on key sustainability metrics, environmental, sustainability and governance issues are starting to gain traction where it will matter most.”
Setting actionable targets
Like O’Regan, PwC’s Kim McClenaghan believes there’s plenty to learn about climate action from the global response to Covid-19. As the firm’s technology and sustainability partner in Ireland, she’s confident that Covid is driving greater awareness of industry emissions. The onus is on company leaders, she says, to set the targets that will ultimately reduce their carbon footprints.
“Many companies are turning to science-based emission-reduction targets to define their carbon reduction ambition, with reference to the goals set under the Paris Agreement,” she says. “These set out to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
“As companies look to rebuild, it will be important to futureproof business models and, where possible, take learnings from our experiences of dealing with Covid-19.”
Taking an approach that incorporates our pandemic learnings requires harnessing business model disruptions with technology at their core, she explains. “Covid-19 has rapidly disrupted business norms and created new preferences and practices that if sustained, could also lead to direct emissions reductions.
“These could include remote working and increased digital social connecting, nearshoring and regionalising and nationalising supply chains along with 3D printing, which would usher in a new mantra of ‘make where you sell’.
“Across the board, these could deliver sustained reductions in transportation demand and associated emissions. In addition, the accelerating automation of production lines that the retail sector brought about to enable business continuity during this crisis will also deliver emissions reductions.
“Moving towards zero carbon will enable businesses to adopt strategies and create products and services based on the true cost and true impact of climate change.”
Empowering your people
Covid has made it clearer than ever that businesses would be nowhere without their people. Involving them in conversations around climate action will be crucial, says Workhuman’s vice-president environmental, social and governance, Kevin Mullins.
Mullins believes that effective sustainability will require a group effort. He says: “The health of our planet and humanity is at stake and requires everyone to play a part. Governments cannot bear this burden alone.
“Companies have a responsibility to fully understand the global impacts of their activities and actions. This starts with determining their environmental footprint, taking the appropriate steps to minimise their impact and seeking ideas and approaches that will be sustainable in the long term.”
The steps Workhuman has taken so far aim to achieve carbon neutrality while promoting a “less impactful, more ethical relationship between business practices and the environment”, Mullins says.
In 2020, the company became a charter member of the Sustainable Business and Enterprise Roundtable. The organisation provides advice and support services for companies working towards greater sustainability.
More recently, Workhuman launched a new employee resource group for sustainability. The group will drive sustainability ideas and actions across the wider company.
Mullins adds: “Sustainability is strongest when conducted as part of a wider community, leveraging the reach and power of collective, like-minded people and companies.”