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We must reset our thinking on sustainability: Four key hopes for COP26

Following the August release of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report, there is no denying the fact that many more eyes are now firmly focused on the upcoming 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26. Scheduled to take place between 31st October and 12th November 2021, this year’s conference is likely to be the most important gathering yet. When it comes to climate change, the heat has been turned right up (literally) and both the public and businesses alike are expecting answers from those with the power to start making the changes that are not only necessary but long overdue.

I, and many others, believe as a society we are experiencing ‘The Great Awakening’. The global pandemic caused a seismic shock across industries, sectors, and communities, as people from all walks of life woke up to the fact that change was not only possible, but it actually made things better. COVID-19 has provided the impetus to take a look at how we work, live and interact through fresh eyes, and without the rose-tinted spectacles that have coloured the years gone by.

We’ve had decades of businesses simply ticking boxes and complying to CSR. It’s had little impact. Making fluffy purpose declarations had added nothing. What is needed now is a complete change of mindset. The challenges of the 21st century mean businesses must go ‘all in’ and put sustainability at the core of their business plans.

As COP26 approaches, I, and the wider team at Single Organizing Idea, have four hopes:

That business get the message they need to transition quickly

We’ve spent too many years failing to take action, and time is running out. We’ve got less than 10 years to reverse the damage. Climate change is not the next generation’s issue. It’s ours and it’s our businesses that need to change by putting sustainability at their core. A report from the 1970s which predicted societal breakdown by 2050 has shown that we appear to be following its predicted trajectory. Guess what, we’re bang on course for societal, economic and environmental disaster unless we take the reins and change track urgently. 

That said, we need to be mindful of ‘Analysis Paralysis’. We can’t keep wasting time standing still because we’re overwhelmed by all the bad news we’re bombarded with on the daily basis. There is a way forward and change is entirely possible. But we can’t sit by waiting for a solution to spring up, or for technology to get us out of this mess. It’s up to us to start making changes today. 

That businesses start paying attention to gen Z and accelerate opportunities for millennials and gen Z to  influence future strategies

Make no mistake, Gen Z are a force to be reckoned with. This generation is not motivated by money or pretence, as survey after survey shows. They have their eyes wide open and are attracted to businesses that are genuinely making a difference in the world, and to roles where what they do makes a difference, where they can make an impact. They want to be heavily invested in the cause. They want their work to be meaningful. 

Right now in many organisations, these workers aren’t entering into positions of influence, so their voices simply aren’t being heard. Organisations need to urgently create opportunities for younger workers to contribute and meaningfully shape the future direction of the business. By flattening the pyramid an organisation can redistribute power across the entire business and the ecosystem that it supports. In doing so, it liberates people, enabling them to pursue a sustainable objective that comes from the beating heart of the business and not the temps at the top of it. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a need for leadership - there is, in spades! But the bottom line is that people organise themselves around a single organizing idea, not under a boss.

That business understand that what comes with a sustainable future are wonderful opportunities

Too many businesses are organised around the need to generate profit for stakeholders, or to cater to the whims of the CEO or the board. The mistaken assumption that you can’t be profitable and be a force for good is also prevalent. It’s entirely possible to achieve both without trading one for the other. 

I often refer to Community Clothing as a shining example of what can be achieved when you combine the two. As a social enterprise, the business as a simple goal; to sell great quality affordable clothing, and by doing so, create jobs and restore economic prosperity in some of the UK’s most deprived areas. They work with partner factories, filling capacity during quiet periods and to date, have created over 140,000 hours of skilled work. And despite the pandemic’s impact on production, in 2020, they created over 10,000 hours of work, delivering a positive impact in Covid hit areas. 

Quite simply, businesses need to take a leaf out of Community Clothing’s founder, Patrick Grant’s book and stop organising solely around the short-term pursuit of financial outcomes. Instead, they need to organise themselves around a sustainable idea that will ensure that all the actions and decisions of the business are guided by a concept that benefits all stakeholders. There’s no getting away from the fact that this is the future, and it’s set to be a bright one. 

That a carbon tax be introduced globally

Many organisations are making the dangerous mistake of thinking simply offsetting their carbon emissions in order to achieve a net zero position is all that is necessary. Ultimately, this just perpetuates the same behaviour rather than actually reducing emissions. Experts have clearly stated that offsetting should only be used in cases where it is particularly difficult or costly to reduce or completely remove the carbon emissions. Implementing a carbon tax globally is one of the most effective ways to incentivise organisations to actually reduce the levels of emissions they are pumping into the atmosphere. 

Evidence has shown that countries that implement carbon taxes see a marked reduction in emissions and other actions which have a significant impact on the planet’s ability to process existing levels of carbon, such as deforestation. 

For example, Costa Rica imposed a carbon tax back in 1997, and since then, it has helped protect and restore lands covering a quarter of the country. In addition, it generates over $26 million a year in revenue, which is then paid to farmers and landowners who are involved in rainforest protection and restoration on their property. 

Carbon taxes have also got the public’s vote, with a recent survey by the Zero Carbon Campaign revealing that two-thirds felt it was a fair way to raise money, and that the income generated should be used to benefit the country. 

I am extremely hopeful that COP26 will act as a catalyst for many who have stood by the sidelines to take action. For ambitions to be made real. Drawing on over 15 years of experience, I know that it is entirely possible. 

Instead of a piecemeal approach to sustainability, businesses need to go ‘all in’ and identify, define and then align ALL their actions and activities with a sustainable SOI (Single Organizing Idea) that ensures they are fit for the future..

The right SOI, set at the core of the business, will ensure the delivery of the long-term economic, societal, human and environmental outcomes and meet the fast-growing concerns of customers, employees and investors demanding change. 

If you are inspired to make a change today in your business, or those that you advise, I urge you to get in touch with us. As a business, our core purpose is to accelerate progress, and together, we can change the world. 


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