WEDNESDAY 27 MAR 2024 2:53 PM


David Willans, director of sustainability at Bladonmore, highlights five takeaways from the Economist Impact Summit for communication.

The Economist Impact Summit has become a mainstay of the sustainable business circuit. The crowd and speakers are always top draw and this year’s summit was no different. Here are five takeaways from the full-on three days.

Get specific

The labels of ESG and sustainability are so broad they confuse, and so politicised that they divide. Not the best two features a concept can have when it comes to communication. The solution may lie in heightened specificity. Alex Edmans from LUBS is pushing for the idea of rational sustainability. I’ve written before about this as the new emerging sustainability narrative in the days before the Summit and recently BlackRock switched their language to Transition Investing.

When it comes to communicating corporate sustainability, we need to get specific about the issues that really matter, which means identifying the material issues with rigorous processes and then focusing on them. Every business will still have ‘license to operate’ issues but these aren’t the issues that you should pull focus towards.

Nike won’t spend precious time talking about its office recycling, packaging recyclability, and working parent networks as part of its pitch to consumers or its equity story for investors. For an investor the transition is probably the biggest societal change in history, it would be criminal for an investor like BlackRock not to focus on this.

So, get specific about which issues really matter to your business, and where you can have the biggest impact.

Stand up to demands

One talk discussed how business leaders navigate internal and external demands to take a stance on geopolitical issues like Ukraine and Gaza. Two points stood out.

Firstly, why are people asking in the first place? It’s because of a combination of a leadership vacuum in politics, and the deep human need to live in a secure world that makes sense to them. When that security isn’t provided by political leaders, people look to who they see as the next most powerful group – business leaders might fit the bill. This knowledge should help thicken the skins of leaders, something that’s going to be increasingly important as the world gets more volatile.

Secondly, if you are going to speak about these issues, it matters how relevant it is to your business. Clarity on that relevance reveals the legitimacy of your commentary, and therefore whether you should respond.

Reporting looms large

Some of the most attended sessions were around the EU’s incoming CSRD (Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive) reporting standards. They are massive. I’ve heard of some big corporates pulling together teams of 30+ people to get to grips with them.

Everyone’s in the same boat – no-one knows how to deal with them because no one has done this before. The requirements are so large they are pulling focus, attention, and resource from other important workstreams, like moving the business forward on key sustainability issues.

Sustainability and communications teams are being drawn into preparing for the requirements, but really finance and compliance should be leading the way. That’s because it is corporate reporting to meet legislative requirements. Therefore, sustainability and communications teams would do well to shift all corporate sustainability disclosure that way, so they can get on with their jobs of delivering the sustainability strategy and shaping the story of the organisation’s progress.

Scope 3

Scope 3 refers to the emissions a company creates in its supply chain, for example, I buy your steel so the emissions you created making it are my responsibility. It’s the place where the vast majority of a company’s climate emissions come from and the hardest to change because it’s not in the company’s direct control.

It’s not a new topic of conversation in sustainability circles, but it’s still in the same place. It’s hard, it’s unclear and lots of people are working on it, but no-one has cracked it yet. That said, there have been some big wins recently, like Walmart’s Project Gigaton hitting targets six years early.

Just because it is hard, it doesn’t mean that communicators can ignore it. Climate issues become more obvious year-on-year, and so too, therefore, do climate communications. You must get to grips with your business’s scope 3 emissions and communicate your plan to improve them. If you really want to see progress, getting involved in supplier engagements will certainly help.

Consumer choice

At any sustainability conference there’s always a session on the green consumer and how much more sustainability is being demanded by customers. Maybe I’m too cynical, but I’ve heard this same story for decades. What no-one acknowledges is that unless sustainability enhances the proposition (i.e., makes the food healthier or the car cheaper to run or higher status to be seen in) sustainability will always be a third or fourth level driver for purchasing decision making. Yes, things are shifting, and more people do care about sustainability, but don’t get carried away and think they’re the solution to changing our whole system.

If you only take away one word from all of this, let it be specific.

Get specific about how sustainability matters to your business. Get specific about where your business has the biggest impact on the world around it. Get specific about the actions you are taking and why you’re taking them – as well as the topics on which you choose to speak. Armed with all of that, the rest of the work talking about it all becomes much easier.