ITL #519 Net zero communications: how to effectively communicate sustainability efforts

1 year ago

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Organizations must clearly show where they stand, where they want to go, which steps they are taking and the progress they are making. By Daniel Silberhorn.



As the world moves towards a more sustainable future, organizations are taking steps towards achieving net zero emissions. However, simply reducing emissions is not enough. It is equally important to effectively communicate around these efforts with your various stakeholders. Many companies fear the potential prospect of being reproached for greenwashing.

Indeed, this is a threat not to be underestimated. The first few weeks of 2023 have seen a broad range of legislative and authority action cracking down on corporate attempts to score with sustainability and carbon claims, while not producing enough evidence to support them.

For example, France tightened rules on net zero claims, Australia issued another fine, and the UK announced scrutiny of greenwashing on food, drink, and toiletry labels. IPRA, as one of the global PR associations, published climate change communications guidelines. While at the same time, the European Union (EU) proposed a draft law to ban greenwashing in March. Besides, the EU had earlier introduced the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD), with stricter rules on sustainability reporting by corporations, starting in 2024. And this is by no means a complete list.

The term ‘net zero’ first appeared in a 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is also known as the World Climate Council. According to that report, all countries must reduce their carbon dioxide emissions to net zero by 2050 to keep global warming within 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial levels. Businesses can achieve net zero by reducing, as far as possible, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across all activities, and offsetting remaining emissions by investing in projects such as sustainable reforestation or off-site renewable energy projects.

Readily used Comms propositions

Claims to be ‘carbon neutral’ or ‘climate neutral’ have become a valuable and readily used proposition for communications. At the same time, scrutiny is growing into how companies achieve carbon neutrality. In particular, the practice of compensation has drawn criticism, with investigative journalists raising questions about the practices of key providers. According to media reports, more than 90% of carbon offsets from one of the world’s largest providers could be worthless.

So, companies are well-advised not to blow their own horns when their ‘carbon neutral’ claims rely heavily on compensation. How can they be confident of being on safe communication territory?

The climate agenda is driven by multiple stakeholders, with the Paris agreement in 2015 as the main trigger for a rapid increase in pressure and expectations on companies from all stakeholders: governments, investors, customers, and the public. In 2017, the G20 Financial Stability Board Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) developed risk management plans and integrated climate into financial reporting. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) regularly provides the most comprehensive regular scientific assessments on climate change, its implications, and future risks. Including options for reducing the rate at which the climate changes.

Based on the scientific IPCC reduction goals, another key stakeholder, the Science Based Targets initiative, has set criteria for net zero targets that are in line with the global climate goals. The SBTi is a collaboration between the Carbon Disclosure Project, the United Nations Global Compact, World Resources Institute (WRI) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

To date, 1,625 companies have set SBTi net-zero commitments (SBTi, 2023). Among the recent SBTi-approved companies are HeidelbergCement, eon, P&G, Linde, easyJet and VW. Such a commitment represents a credible basis for companies to speak about their own corporate climate goals. (The new EU law against Greenwashing originally was supposed to even require a lifecycle analysis, which evaluates a product’s impact from raw materials to final disposal).

What is credible?

Of course, such a target alone is not enough. As the UN demands: “Commitments must be backed by bold, credible actions”. Once more, actions speak louder than words. But what is credible?

To put it simply: You must show where you stand (baseline), where you want to go (targets) and which steps you take when (roadmap), transparently communicating your progress along the journey. And you need to make sure to engage with stakeholders early on and provide leadership.

In fact, many transformation projects fail due to a lack in communication. And sustainability does require change, make no mistake. In 1995, John P. Potter linked the top leadership errors in change to communication failure: not establishing a great enough sense of urgency, not creating a powerful enough guiding coalition, lacking a vision that clarifies direction, under-communicating the vision.

Enabling employee participation and forming a strong internal coalition across the key departments involved will ensure all relevant insights are included. And get buy-in and support for implementing the net zero strategy. Otherwise, efforts are likely to fail or remain just paper instead of becoming reality. You must think carefully about how to include sustainability efforts into daily culture.

Externally, membership of alliances and initiatives like the UN-backed Race to Zero campaign or the cross-sector initiative Transform to Net Zero adds further credibility. Sustainability ratings and assessments like EcoVadis or the assessment scores by the not for profit Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) provide some degree of objectivity and comparability within and across industries.

Here are five key recommendations for successful Net Zero Communications:


  1. Set science-based targets: companies should set targets that are aligned with the latest science and best practices, such as the SBTi. This will ensure that the targets are ambitious, credible and consistent with the global goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C.
  2. Provide transparent and credible reporting: companies should provide regular and transparent reporting on their emissions, reduction targets and progress, using recognized frameworks and standards, such as the Global Reporting Initiative and the Carbon Disclosure Project.
  3. Be transparent: share information about your company's emissions and sustainability efforts openly and regularly across relevant channels and as part of your regular corporate communications. Use clear language and provide detailed data to demonstrate progress towards your goals.
  4. Engage stakeholders: involve stakeholders, including customers, employees, and investors, in your sustainability efforts early on. This can help to build support and buy-in for your initiatives and demonstrate the importance of sustainability – based on an authentic sustainability narrative.
  5. Avoid greenwashing: to avoid accusations of greenwashing, ensure that your communications are accurate, truthful, and not misleading. Be clear about the scope and limitations of your sustainability efforts and avoid making vague or unverifiable claims.

 

 


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The Author

Daniel Silberhorn

Daniel Silberhorn is Senior Advisor ESG & Sustainability Transformation, SLR Consulting and Chair of the IPRA Climate Change Chapter.

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