In his monthly roundup of sustainability news, Oliver Balch looks at how brands used Biden’s climate summit to set out their stalls for COP26, developments on reducing emissions in food system and attitudes toward future of work
With politicians stealing the Earth Day show this year, one strategy for brands was to ride the wave by identifying a big, bold political initiative to throw their weight behind.
The most stellar example is the Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest finance initiative (cleverly re-christened LEAF). Backed by the U.S., UK and Norwegian governments, it was endorsed by a flood of major brands: Airbnb, Amazon, Bayer, Boston Consulting Group, GSK, McKinsey, Nestlé, Salesforce, Unilever.
LEAF’s goal? In short, to mobilise finance “at scale” for emission-reduction projects that protect tropical and subtropical forests, while also providing sustainable livelihoods for forest populations. The promise? A “new model of forest finance” that could potentially “channel tens of billions of dollars per year” into carbon-busting initiatives in forest-rich nations.
The scramble to sign open letters derives from a similar logic. There was a one-page missive from more than 400 major businesses calling on U.S. President Joe Biden to agree a 50% cut in emissions (on 2005 levels) by 2030. Drafted by the We Mean Business coalition, the letter’s “ambitious and attainable” central demand (later endorsed by the White House) carried the signatures of Fortune 500 stalwarts such as eBay, Levi Strauss, Starbucks, McDonald’s and Salesforce through to global, non-U.S. brands such as IKEA, Nestlé and Unilever. Later the same day, the White House agreed. Leading marketeers also put their head above the parapet, announcing a pledge to champion the cause of net-zero and to help their clients do likewise.
Without question, the magic number at the pending COP26 summit will be 2050
Given that this year’s Earth Day served as a warm-up act for the next big UN climate change conference, scheduled for November, strategy two among brands was to set out their stall. Without question, the magic number at the pending COP26 summit will be 2050, the final delivery date for the landmark Paris Agreement (signed back in 2015). Cue announcements galore from corporate press departments about new 2050 targets. The more credible had nearer-term 2030 targets and came with a tick from the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), whose list of accredited firms now counts restaurant chain Burger King, PayPal, sports brands On Running and Under Armour, consultancy ICF, and Italian utility Gruppo Hera, among others.
The higher the entry bar, the greater the credibility. SBTi’s Business Ambition for 1.5°C is one such elite club, with acceptance depending on having a verified plan for achieving emissions reductions in line with a temperature rise of no more than 1.5C by 2050. Earth Day saw a raft of new members pass muster, including Netflix, Apple, Walmart, and e-commerce platform Etsy.
The Climate Pledge, the new(ish) Amazon-backed alliance aimed at achieving net-zero by 2040, also saw its numbers swell. New faces among the group’s roster of 100-plus members (include Colgate-Palmolive, Pepsi, Telefónica, Heineken and Visa. (The final two saw fit to lay out comprehensive new climate strategies).
As ever, Earth Day also threw up its share of the random and the ready-baked. Into the first category fall news of tyre maker Bridgestone’s involvement in the world’s first long-range solar car, set to hit forecourts in Europe later this year. Archetypes of the second category, meanwhile, range from transparency specialist CDP’s findings on the use of internal carbon pricing (up 80% in the last five years) and the unveiling of the new set of Regenerative Agriculture Principles by consumer goods giant Unilever.
Finally, in a reminder that it’s not just brand PRs who earmark Earth Day for notable announcements, city authorities in New York chose 22 April to file a lawsuit against ExxonMobil, Shell and BP. In the view of the municipality’s lawyers, the triad of oil giants intentionally misled consumers after branding their fuel as "cleaner" and "emissions-reducing" while not disclosing their climate impacts
‘We are what we don’t eat’ as food waste balloons
For years, doctors and scientists have been reminding us that “we are what we eat”, but, in these times of climate emergency, is it time we gave serious thought to the inverse?
The UNEP’s latest Food Waste Index finds an astronomical 931m tonnes of packaged-up, consumer-ready food is being wasted annually, equivalent to around 17% of the total food produced and marketed per year.
Meanwhile, the new Edgar-Food database, which maps greenhouse gas emissions in the complete global food system, from production to consumption, estimates that the global food system is responsible for around one third (34%; i.e. 18 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year) of total global anthropogenic emissions (2015 figures). Now, imagine the food currently wasted was never produced. Total emissions saved? Around 3.06 gigatonnes, equivalent to about 5.8% of our collective carbon footprint (so, more than double, say, aviation or shipping).
So, what we don’t eat matters. Consumers are also increasingly aware of food production’s impacts on water scarcity (worrying), nutrient pollution (problematic), and biodiversity loss (life-threatening). To raise awareness further, the charity Compassion in World Farming has developed an online calculator to map the multiple impacts of the food on your plate. The menu runs from a full fried breakfast (“not great”) to a mac and cheese dinner (“not terrible”), along with suggestions and menus for lower-impact fare.
Walk into a store, however, and consumers are looking for guidance, not gimmicks. A recent survey by the Harris Poll finds that 65% of North American shoppers struggle to identify responsibly sourced products. The findings tee up a new initiative from Whole Foods Market to direct its in-store consumers to certified goods by attaching a Sourced for Good sticker to more than 100 products verified by the likes of Fairtrade America, the Rainforest Alliance, and the Equitable Food Initiative.
The move reflects the growing expectation of environmental transparency among the food-consuming public. If brands can produce data on recommended levels of sugar or saturated fats (albeit with insufficient improvements, according to rebel Tesco shareholders), why not per-product emissions or water use? U.S. milk producer Horizon Organic (part of French yoghurt group Danone) unveiled for the first time the lifetime emissions associated with its core product (answer: 5.58 kg CO2e per half-gallon). On-pack information about environmental improvements is also the promise from Nomad Foods (owner of brand such as Birds Eye and Findus) following a new tie-in with conservation charity WWF.
Food production is likely to remain “a major source of emissions that will require dedicated mitigation policies”, the scientists behind the Edgar-Food initiative conclude. Transparency has to become one such policy. By helping us reduce our consumption of high-carbon products, what we don’t eat (i.e. don’t buy) could become as important a climate motto.
As offices start to reopen focus falls on future of work
We all know that the world of work will never be the same again. But what specifically might be different about work patterns post-Covid?
First off, 42% of European business travellers plan to fly less once the pandemic has subsided, research by polling firm YouGov finds. The shift reflects an acknowledgement by companies that flight restrictions during Covid-19 have either had no material impact on their business (55%) or have actually improved productivity (19%).
Second, ready yourself for a more “human” work environment. The typical pre-Covid workplace represents a “hangover” from the early 20th century, when workers were considered “resources” to be “herded” wherever their employer decided. So argues a provocative new study, The Human Organisation. Traditional employment patterns fail to take account of our social nature or fully engage our sense or emotions, says the report’s author John Drummond, chairman of advisory firm Corporate Culture.
The report provides a rallying call for a return to face-to-face work, arguing that the need to connect with others is core to both individual wellbeing and business innovation. Survey data is less resolute, with views about office work varying substantially by age, geography and profession. The general consensus appears to be a desire for both: a few days telework with a few days in the office. Nearly half (48%) of U.S. workers recently surveyed by the tech firm Envoy echoed precisely such sentiments (with 41% saying they would take a pay cut if it meant securing such flexibility). A survey by Eden Workplace, meanwhile, reveals that most U.S. office workers (85%) wanting to return in some capacity, with 52% citing “seeing colleagues” as their top reason.
Of course, returning to the office may not be an option for everyone. In 2020, a staggering 114 million people lost their jobs, with restrictions on working hours resulting in the loss of a further 141m full-time equivalent positions. For many, unemployment acted as the trigger to set up on their own. In the U.S., the business listing service Yelp registered 487,577 new entries in the year up to March 2021, while in the UK Companies House reporting 468,371 new registrations in 2020. Of these, 16,869 comprise consultancy firms, a popular option for business professionals who find themselves out of work. Intriguingly, nearly half (46%) of this cadre of new consultants claim self-employment as a long-term goal, new research by the Accountancy Partnership reveals.
While talk of a “good Covid” is unequivocally deleterious, one group to have seen a bounce over the last year or so are business ethicists. An in-depth global survey of business leaders reveals that many senior executives experienced a “moment of clarity” during the pandemic. If the study is to be believed, this reflective mood promises a renewed era of purpose and values (cited 90 and 93 times respectively in the 59-page report). As Wiebe Draijer, chairman of Rabobank, is quoted as saying: “Right now, everyone is sitting at home, so it doesn’t matter if your offices are nice, or if the pay cheque is good . . . everyone has to feel that from their living rooms, they’re putting a man on the moon.”
This article appeared in the April 2021 issue of The Sustainable Review: See also: