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December 1, 2022 // Katy Mendes  //       //  Opinion

The Role of Business in the Fight Against the Climate Crisis

It’s now widely understood we must urgently address the accelerating climate crisis to avoid further environmental breakdown and loss of life. That means global cooperation, leadership and action from governments, private corporations and civil society.

At Allison+Partners, I help to lead annual reporting on the news coming out of the Conference of Parties (COP) – the largest gathering of global leaders setting the agenda on climate. Much of the conversation at this year’s COP27 focused on the long negotiations – and ultimate landmark agreement – around a new loss and damage fund, a commitment for wealthier carbon-emitting countries to compensate developing nations most vulnerable to, and least responsible for, the climate crisis. While this was a huge climate justice win for these countries, there was still frustration around the lack of progress on emissions in the final COP deal. And notably, Greta Thunberg avoided this year’s conference – criticizing the summits as a forum for people in power to get attention using greenwashing. With this in mind, I want to discuss how business leaders can avoid this and instead use their considerable influence to help slow the accelerating climate crisis. 

There are, undeniably, a number of greenwashing tactics that muddy the waters and block progress in the climate fight. Attempting to curb empty “net-zero” pledges, the UN’s High-Level Expert Group (established by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres this year) released a report outlining how entities cannot claim to be net-zero while continuing to build or invest in new fossil-fuel supply or any kind of environmentally destructive activities, cannot participate or have partners participate in lobbying activities against climate change, or report on one part of their business's assets while hiding the rest. Leaders and decision makers must pay heed to this guidance, avoid cutting corners and work to tangibly and aggressively reduce emissions to ensure we reach a just, net-zero future. 

While not every brand can be Patagonia with Yvon Chouinard, its inspirational leader, setting the gold standard for a new form of capitalism businesses can still step up by using their platforms to push for change, alongside tackling their emissions reductions. First, let’s take our role as marketers. It’s critical we counsel against sustainable campaigns when the business or product is not grounded in environmentally sound practices. As PR practitioners, we should evaluate all claims carefully and ensure full transparency in all comms. On the creative side, and considering how brands shape culture, we can use brand influence to inspire action. To inform public opinion on, and build awareness around, climate issues (and avoid greenwashing in the process), marketing budgets can be spent on informative, educational campaigns – without slyly promoting products on the side. Take Earthday.org’s campaign around the carbon emissions of streaming, which encouraged people to stream in SD rather than HD, as inspiration. 

Brands can also use their influence within business and political spheres, Seventh Generation’s ongoing climate activism provides a good example. In another, Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s, Sky, British Gas and Virgin Media O2, and others recently backed an open letter pushing the chief executives of Meta, Google, Twitter, TikTok and Reddit to rein in climate misinformation, enforce fact-checking and bar ads that serve to misinform on climate. And a group of more than 100 business leaders – the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders – publicly addressed global political and business decision makers ahead of COP27 with an action plan for private and public sector collaboration to accelerate a just transition that uplifts everyone within the global economy. In its truest form, a just transition addresses poverty, inequality and unemployment, while achieving environmental sustainability – the “just” in climate justice. And as Vox outlines, it is possible to achieve both economic growth to tackle poverty while addressing the climate crisis, with more than 30 countries already having achieved what’s known as absolute decoupling– reducing carbon emissions while continuing to grow economically. 

The U.S. and the EU alone are currently spending $1.4 trillion toward environmental sustainability and climate adaptation, there is $17.5 billion in VC funding for green tech and the market for green financial instruments globally is $658 billion, says Forrester. These figures demonstrate the huge market opportunity for the public and private sectors to address a clean transition. While greenwashing is a serious issue that inhibits progress and the COP summits have their limitations – this investment in climate, increasing legislative progress (such as the landmark climate bill aka the Inflation Reduction Act that was recently passed through congress) and many growing solutions allow me to feel cautiously hopeful. 

But to ensure global warming stays within 1.5°C to avoid the worst impacts of the crisis, we must reduce emissions by at least 45% by 2030 and, following the deal made at COP27, we’re only on track for a 10% reduction. The biggest takeaway then is that we must keep up the collective pressure to help address the greatest global challenge we all face. I see a big role for us as comms professionals and business leaders in tackling this, reducing emissions within the private sector, and providing clear and compelling communications that informs and engages the public on their role. 

Some other ways brands can take meaningful action: 

  • Cut ties with the fossil fuels industry
  • Set aggressive, short and long term Science-Based Targets 
  • Fight against the ESG backlash by investing in talent to lead transparent and credible ESG reporting, and work towards harmonized reporting standards
  • Abandon polluting materials in favor of circular solutions, and continue to invest in sustainable R&D, transportation and renewable energy to dramatically curb emissions and achieve targets
  • Commit to avoiding greenwashing in marketing and reporting 
  • Be bold and use your platform for corporate activism. It’s what consumers want

And if you’d like to learn more about how you can individually participate, I encourage you to explore resources on Citizens Climate Lobby, an organization enabling citizens to get involved in climate policy, and working to secure a bipartisan solution to climate change. 

During her eight years at Allison+Partners, Katy has worked with startups to mid-sized and global Fortune 500 companies across the London and San Francisco offices. With a background in the non-profit world prior to agency life, she has a keen interest in purpose, sustainability, social impact, DE&I and the outdoors, and applies her passion to deliver impactful storytelling for the brands she works with. In her role as vice president, she leads initiatives within the agency’s Purpose Center of Excellence, seeks out new business opportunities, builds strategic thought leadership platforms and oversees teams to drive impactful results for brands committed to building a sustainable future. She holds a BA in psychology and fine art from Newcastle University.

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