At a recent conference for sustainability professionals, it struck me how frequently the topic of influence came up. Without influence, we were warned, the sustainability function risks becoming a comfort blanket or a token gesture, allowing organisations to avoid real change.
Participants were advised by different speakers to gain influence in very different ways. Some felt it was the sustainability function’s role to act as the voice of conscience and push for change; others that it was better to advise and stand back to force others to act. Still others emphasised the potential to use the sustainability remit to bring all functions together to catalyse solutions.
The presentations echoed a common preoccupation among sustainability professionals. Is my work effecting real change? Am I on the right side of history?
It’s not a concern I often hear echoed by accountants, but I believe it should be. The IPCC’s AR6 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2023 is further proof (if anyone still needs it) of the scale of change that is required to limit the impacts of climate change.
All of us involved in reporting have a particular responsibility to step up to the plate
As well as shifting to renewable energy, sustainable agriculture and land, and sustainable urbanisation and transportation systems, we also need to address inequality, unsustainable consumption and production, and empower vulnerable and marginalised populations.
As the IPCC points out, these social, cultural and economic systems underpin sustainability.
It’s a daunting list. The social, institutional and financial barriers to change can feel insurmountable. And the implications of failure can be so terrifying that it’s tempting to try and ignore the whole thing in the hope that someone else will fix it.
But the hard reality is that we all have a responsibility to contribute to the solution. Like it or not, all of us involved in reporting have a particular responsibility to step up to the plate.
It is not just about making sure carbon emissions are accurately reported. Reporters are in a unique position to help organisations define what ‘good’ looks like, and to track the realities of progress towards their climate goals. We have mechanisms at our disposal that are not so readily available to the sustainability function.
If auditors make the audit committee aware that the organisation is underinvesting in decarbonisation, or the legal team identify greenwashing, or the risk team ensure climate risks are reflected across the risk profile, then change will happen.
It is not just about annually reported carbon emissions. New, more complex measures of climate change performance are rapidly emerging among investors and standard setters. Factors such as decarbonisation spend as a percentage of revenue, Scope 3 emissions as a proxy for value chain climate risks, and projected performance in a 1.5 degree scenario are leading examples.
As reporters, we should all be working to determine which of these factors are most relevant to our organisation and build them into decision-making mechanisms.
‘Our world needs climate action on all fronts: everything, everywhere, all at once’
Reporting is often the mechanism that holds an organisation’s feet to the flames; it is where reality confronts comfort and habit. Again, with the weight of stakeholder concerns behind us, reporters should push to ensure metrics of performance are appropriate, regularly reviewed, and well understood by our leaders.
Climate change mitigation and adaptation are complex and rapidly shifting: nobody can afford to rest on their laurels. If an activity is not on track to produce the desired outcome, then reporting mechanisms should challenge the organisation to assess if the approach should be adjusted or a new approached tried.
The question of how best to use your influence to stay on the right side of history is one we all need to consider. The reality is that we all need to do whatever we judge will have the most impact. It is not and cannot be up to the sustainability function to effect change.
As the UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, said in launching the IPCC report: ‘Our world needs climate action on all fronts: everything, everywhere, all at once.’