Corporate sustainability pledges, from net zero to carbon negative to nature positive, are now a fixture of daily life. And I’m worried.
Having worked in sustainability for the past decade, I’ve had a front-row seat on the way these commitments often play out. And without deep business transformation, they won’t. I’m hearing a lot of noise around where businesses are planning to land, but not so much on what it will take to get there.
Could it be that business leaders don’t actually know what it will take to deliver on big commitments? Or are they struggling to tackle the obstacles to change? I’m observing a bit of both.
Regardless of the sticking point, leaders need to be honest with shareholders, internal teams, and consumers about the contradictions between current business models and sustainable production and consumption. Only then can leaders get real about what it will take to deliver on promises and start rolling up their sleeves to make it happen. Here’s what leading true transformation looks like.
Most business leaders I know understand that they can’t reach their sustainability goals on a business-as-usual path. They’re well aware that the systems in place favor short-term gains over long-term value and resilience.
This uncomfortable reality may make playing the “not my problem” card seem tempting. That’s precisely where the problem lies. Now is not the time to shrug at things that seem outside of our control. Instead, leaders must dig deeper and challenge their long-held beliefs about doing business.
It’s time to start questioning the rules of business and getting answers: Will our current business model get us to the goals we’re promising to achieve? Which of our products or activities are at odds with our sustainability goals? Leaders need to normalize posing these existential questions at shareholder meetings, to board members, and among industry peers. This requires being honest and up-front about inconsistencies and how to address them.
And these conversations shouldn’t happen in a generational silo. In the classic clash of youth versus business leaders, it’s easy to use dismissal to mask discomfort. But what if leaders started leaning into the energy of the younger generations to find new solutions and common ground?
Practice—and advocate—what you preach
I see two sides of the corporate sustainability spectrum today. On one end are companies that have acknowledged reality: It’s impossible to engineer a road to sustainability without transforming the way we do business. On the other are those who give lip service to the sustainability movement while actively undermining progress within and outside of their company.
Presenting as a politically neutral business is a thing of the past. Consumers are demanding more than words; and they’re watching for inconsistencies. Leaders must tear down silos between sustainability departments and corporate influence teams, ensuring that those lobbying on behalf of the company are walking the talk, too. Companies that are truly committed to fulfilling their promises know that they must advocate for public policies that create the conditions necessary for change.
To fully embody their commitments and values, businesses should become sustainability activists and throw their weight behind causes they claim to care about—not as a performance or just when it’s convenient. Focusing on fixing the issues their operations impact directly is key. The companies that actively work to rewrite the rules of the game for the better are the ones that will maintain their license to operate and be the example for their peers. A true leader focuses not just on cleaning up their own yard but the entire neighborhood.
Get authentic inside and outside the company
Sometimes a “fake it ’til you make it” attitude can help you persevere through a challenge. This is not one of those times. By acknowledging the roadblocks faced and errors made, leaders can contribute to a culture of authenticity and build the trust to lead transformation.
It’s time to challenge traditional boundaries with competitors, too. It’s cliché but it’s true: We’re stronger when we work together. From the Science Based Targets initiative to the brand new Business Alliance to Scale Climate Solutions, I’ve seen initiatives like these skyrocket over the past decade. This trend is only going to accelerate, so companies that aren’t part of a pre-competitive collaboration should be asking themselves why that is. When an entire industry bands together, the remaining stragglers become increasingly hard to ignore, and excuses for going it alone increasingly slim.
When I look at the state of sustainability today—on the cusp of the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26)—I’m concerned. But I’m also optimistic, and I hope that business leaders are, too. The worst thing to do would be to pretend true sustainability is possible while secretly believing the challenges are insurmountable—because they aren’t.
The opportunities of shifting business to operate within the limits of our planet far outweigh any short-term costs or temporary feelings of discomfort. Those who recognize that big challenges call for more than big words—but big action and follow-through—are the ones who will make it to the other side.
Dimitri Caudrelier is the CEO of Quantis.