UN Sec-Gen to business sector: “Get on the sustainability train, or get left behind”

Five insights for corporate communications. Photo: United Nations Foundation

As a long-serving communications strategist on global sustainable development issues, I was thrilled to be invited by the UN Foundation last week to attend the United Nations Secretary-General António Gutteres’ first public speech on climate change. His message to the U.S. private sector on the eve of the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement could not have been more urgent or clear: The time for action is now.

Likening the emerging age of the “green economy” to the rise of the digital economy in the 1990s, Sec-Gen Gutteres surmised that those who face climate change with clear-eyed pragmatism and innovation will prosper, while those who refuse to see the writing on the wall risk demise. “The sustainability train has left the station. Get on it, or get left behind,” he warned. But this was not a reprimand – it was a rallying cry for innovation.

As the rapid response from the private sector over the last few days indicates, business leaders and chief communications officers should take note. Climate change has become a defining issue for all companies. Sitting on the sidelines is no longer an option and the demands for communication go far beyond an annual sustainability report. A wide set of critical stakeholders including business and supply chain partners, industry peers, regulators, investors and most importantly – customers – want to know where you stand and what you’re doing.

As the issue continues to evolve, here are some things that companies who want to be a part of the global conversation should consider:

  1. Know your strength. Now more than ever, the private sector has a voice and a seat at the table. In fact, many are hoping that the business community will save the day if politics impede the ability of countries to meet the Paris Agreement’s 2 degree goal. Addressing the imminent U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Sec-Gen Gutteres spoke about the laws of physics and the realities of an interconnected world: “Whenever a big power leaves a space, someone else will take it,” he said. And who exactly fills the void left by U.S. government could just as easily be another country as it could be non-governmental bodies – including civil society, private sector, conferences of mayors and states, etc. The swift move of more than 200 U.S. mayors, three states and numerous US-based global companies – including Michael Bloomberg’s offer to fund $15 million of the U.S. financing commitment to the Paris Agreement – over the last four days are case in point. Smart companies will see this as a moment to say and do things that will matter and really get noticed.
  2. Walk the talk. With so many companies making bold moves to meaningfully address climate change and more watchdog organizations monitoring business behaviors, scrutiny is high. It is important that businesses act coherently. Shareholder activism is on the rise, and stakeholders have less tolerance for companies that appear to say one thing and do another. It is important for companies to say what they do and do what they say on climate action.
  3. Band together. Climate is a truly universal issue – affecting rich, poor, large, small, allies and competitors alike. This creates opportunity for new and innovative partnerships. From industry alliances, cross-sector working groups and other partnerships, many companies are finding new ways to join arms. Gutteres mentioned Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures Fund as a case in point. This is not an issue to go it alone. The business community has found strength in numbers in this international arena, where pressure can influence policy and national commitments.
  4. Make a commitment. The beauty of the Paris Agreement is the “bottom-up” approach that allows each country to make their own nationally-determined commitment based on their capabilities and resources. This model is what enabled so many countries to opt in to create true global consensus. Taking the concept one step further, some groups are suggesting that companies should also be allowed to make self-determined commitments to the Paris Agreement – an idea voiced in the audience that was supported by the Secretary-General. The model is underpinned by the simple but powerful insight that clear goals get clear results. The more companies that make specific commitments to climate action and hold themselves accountable to reporting against those commitments, the better we will be. 
  5. Speak in established metrics. And finally, it is important to acknowledge that those companies that make and meet their stated commitments will get recognition as leaders. But it is important to speak in similar terms. Working groups right now are defining the KPIs for the Sustainable Development Goals so all countries and parties can speak in the same metrics. To really get recognition and credit, it will be important for the private sector to speak this language too.

Sarah Vellozzi leads the Corporate Communications practice at Golin New York. She is a member of the UN Foundation Communications Corps and previously staffed seven UN global climate negotiations as an onsite press officer, from COP15 in Copenhagen to the landmark COP21 meeting in Paris. Photo: United Nations Foundation.

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