Solitaire Townsend is a sustainability expert, entrepreneur and co-founder of Futerra, a sustainability strategy and creative agency.
Over two decades, I’ve worked with some of the most respected brands in the world to make sustainability and environmental, social & governance (ESG) issues a powerful driver for business value, growth and positive impact. These companies all have one thing in common when activating social and environmental agendas: They make it everyone’s business.
Companies will only realize the benefits and rewards of ESG action when all employees feel empowered and even expected to play a role in sustainability. If you’re reading this article, no matter your role or job title or the company you work for, you are part of your company’s sustainability team.
Of course, grasping this agenda can feel daunting. It needn’t be. Keep these five truths in mind when starting sustainability conversations and making ESG choices:
- Use the words that feel right, not the right words.
Sustainability. Environmental, Social and Governance (or ESG). Corporate Responsibility. No question, the nomenclature of ‘being good’ can be confusing. Whichever of these terms is being used to describe how businesses and communities can be environmentally and socially responsible, ultimately, they all mean the same thing — doing right by people today while leaving a better world for tomorrow. Don’t let fear of using the wrong terminology hold you back from raising important issues. If in doubt, many consumers use ‘sustainability’ to stand for the whole agenda while ESG is the term often preferred among investors.
- It’s not too late.
Countless experts and scientists (including NASA!) agree that it’s still absolutely possible for us to manage climate change and forestall environmental crisis if we get to work now. And they’re not alone in wanting to see change happen. Google searches for ‘how to live a sustainable lifestyle’ increased by 4,550% between January and March of this year, and over 160 million households sought out Netflix programming related to sustainability over the last year during the pandemic. So, we must channel our eco-anxiety into a sense of empowerment by making some tangible behavior changes.
This is equally true for the pressing social challenges in markets around the world. The pandemic has made consumers focus on ‘essential workers’, and we’re all grateful for those who’ve kept our economies functioning. Many of us have also become more aware of social divisions and systemic inequalities, and companies, governments and citizens around the world are stepping up to try to solve them. Certainly, there is much work to be done. But the increased dialogue and action on social issues is cause for optimism.
- You have the power to make a difference.
In the face of an often-overwhelming news cycle, it’s easy to feel like there’s not much you can do as an individual to make the world a better place. But we must not be defeated. A new report from the Cambridge Sustainability Commission notes that up to 70% of global emissions can be affected by action from individuals. That’s a huge and exciting opportunity for us as humans/citizens/parents/students/consumers to do something. The three biggest areas of individual impact are:
- Our homes — can we power them renewably, waste less energy and use eco-friendly products in them?
- What we eat— can we eat more plants, grow more locally and waste less food?
- How we travel— can we walk and cycle more and vacation without flying every time?
Answering these questions can have a huge positive impact on your own life, in addition to the planet. For example, making your house more energy efficient can result in significant cost savings. Eating more plants reduces your environmental footprint, and also improves health and wellbeing. In fact, a lot of the things that help combat climate change are also good for us — it’s a win-win.
- Sustainability is not about sacrifice, it’s about doing things differently — and better
The idea that sustainability requires sacrifice is one of the biggest myths of all. Sustainability actually offers a massive entrepreneurial opportunity. This is a chance for businesses to transform to meet the changing needs of society.
In fact, even though many consumers used more single-use packaging during the pandemic than they did in pre-COVID times, their interest in sustainable manufacturing and consumption grew. According to PwC’s March 2021 Global Consumer Insights Pulse Survey, today, 64% of consumers working from home say they buy from companies that are conscientious corporate citizens who support the environment.
Governments and corporations have made plans to ‘build back better,’ and we can help them do so by innovating and improving products and services. The market interest is there, and the businesses that can deliver on it will reap rewards.
- Your voice matters.
The difference between a successful corporate sustainability strategy and one that fails is the degree to which every employee understands the mission and makes it their own.
By raising sustainability/ESG/social or environmental issues in your next meeting, you’re helping to create a culture in which people can speak freely and work together to transform your organization and consumers’ lives for the better.
I hope these thoughts help to clarify what can appear on the surface to be an enormous and complex issue. Above all, remember that we’re all capable of affecting change and that these changes can be simple, but can be absolutely transformative when everyone is on board.