Walking the Talk
COP26:
Maintaining the Momentum

Like Earth Day, COP26 might rally internal measures on sustainability issues right now, but how can businesses stay on course and maintain that passion and focus once the moment has been and gone?

COP26 offers a powerful moment for sustainability teams. Historically, they’ve had to lay considerable groundwork before their voices were heard — but with the climate emergency’s global resonance bringing together commercial and business strategies, sustainability strategies and conversations about the fundamental purpose of a business, the stakes and rhetoric have never been higher. This is an opportunity for sustainability to be driven up the corporate agenda and for sustainability teams to get more traction and airtime for their recommendations. But how can they sustain the momentum created by COP26 once the event has passed?

Like Earth Day, COP26 might rally internal measures on sustainability issues right now, but how can businesses stay on course and maintain that passion and focus once the moment has been and gone?

Inspire a growth mindset

When it comes to COP26, there is much talk about what we are not doing, what needs to be changed, how we must move faster and the cost this will involve. Although a necessary pill to swallow, it can be a bitter one for organisations — especially global organisations with complex supply chains and unwieldly internal systems. The problem with this mentality is that it is focused on the imperative to do things differently, rather than the opportunity that a more sustainable focus brings. The fact is, organisations that are changing to do things in a more earth- and people-friendly way are experiencing growth. Doing things differently means opportunities for innovation, access to new markets and changed relationships with key stakeholders across the value chain. Present a growth mindset — the idea that COP26 is a reason to create a better brand, an improved organisation. This sort of thinking helps inspire the embedding of sustainability into brands, rather than associating it with singular moments, a problem to be fixed or short-term changes.

Get sign-off on the long-term roadmap

Sustainability teams must see COP26 as the stepping-off point for long-term change, rather than a moment to generate short-term action (although this is important, too.) The impact of COP26 will not be felt in the run-up, or in the event itself — it will be in the depth of transformation it has inspired when we look at it in the rear-view mirror. Use COP26 as a chance to sign off long-term sustainability ambitions with execs, set against multi-year action plans and clear KPIs. Use the moment to authorise senior buy-in for long-term, road-mapped change. In 20 years, what is your organisation going to achieve and what does one year from now look like? What about year two? After this year’s Summit, you need to be looking at a clear plan that has already been set and committed to at the highest level, rather than looking for the next transient calendar event.

Tie up the commercials

A powerful way to help keep up the momentum of any changes or ambitions set as a result of COP26 is to tie them to commercial measures. Unilever’s Sustainable Living Brands are well-known examples of a sustainable product portfolio whose performance is tracked and reported on. The Sustainable Living Brands’ outperformance when compared to Unilever’s wider product portfolio is irrefutable proof that Unilever’s investment in sustainability delivers commercial advantage and is a watertight argument for investors and senior execs to keep this investment up. Set commercial measures against your sustainability strategy to help secure it for the long term. Show that it is not just about doing something great for society and people now, or in response to COP26; sustainability is good for business. You are far more likely to get key stakeholders to see it less as a news hook and more as a business approach.

Your COP26 response must tie in with a broader purpose

An important way to ensure your COP26 response goes the distance (and makes sense for your organisation) is to make sure that what you say, do and commit to is aligned with your wider purpose. Sustainability teams’ responses to COP26 must be part of a strategic business approach that touches all levels and facets of an organisation, and not simply a knee-jerk reaction to this single line in the sand. Organisations that tie an approach solely to COP26 and have no stronger purpose foundations won’t be able to truly realise their potential impact — either in the world or to unlock growth opportunities around talent, innovation and their brand. Depth of impact will be felt by the substance of an organisation’s COP26 response and how it fits with its wider purpose. And this will also help guard against greenwashing. A credible COP26 response has wider plans and strategy that sit behind it, making it robust and long term.

It will also corroborate a track record. If your ambition around COP26 doesn’t fit with your organisation’s purpose, how can you change the business to make sure it does?

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