With COP27 completed, the urgency surrounding climate action couldn’t be more acute. Countries, governments, and organisations must immediately work together and act now if we are going to avoid a climate crisis. News that only 29 out of 193 countries have submitted tightened national plans to the UN since COP26 simply doesn’t reflect the urgency we must all adopt.
Additionally, I echo the importance of transparency and accountability shared by Simon Stiell, UN Climate Change Executive Secretary, in his opening COP27 remarks; without it, we will not meet our goals.
Seriously, with every five weeks that pass, we edge 1% closer towards the end of the 2020s – the most decisive decade of our lives for the climate crisis and for the sustainability of our planet more broadly.
As of 2022, the situation could not be more serious. We now have a 50% risk of exceeding the 1.5°C warming limit set out in the Paris Agreement before we even reach 2030. This year has seen record heat waves rip across Europe and beyond; Pakistan ravaged by deadly floods as a result of glacial melt and extreme monsoon rains; and record wildfires rage across Spain, Australia, and California. We are pulling more natural resources out of the ground than ever before; our aquifers are drying up; we waste one third of the food we produce globally; and at our current rates of deforestation, the planet may be left with just 10% of its forests by 2030.
As our natural environment suffers under the weight of unsustainable consumption patterns, so too do our communities. Climate change is exacerbating pre-existing social inequalities that persist across the globe, compounding the effects of poverty and marginalisation that increase in likelihood along lines of race, ethnicity, disability, geography, and gender. The result will be poorer health, safety, and socioeconomic outcomes, poorer food and water security, and ultimately poorer people.
Though they do not threaten us equally, these challenges do threaten us all – and while they might like to think otherwise, businesses are no exception. Businesses – particularly global enterprises – produce almost everything we manufacture, use, and dispose of; they touch just about every community and every person on the planet. As a result, much of the responsibility for averting what awaits us sits with these organisations, but so too does most of the room for positive change and concrete improvement.
Yet despite their longevity and even their very existence being endangered by the grave sustainability situation we all face, the corporate world is not acting quickly enough. So far, 2022 has seen more than its fair share of greenwashing, while many enterprise organisations have completely failed to make the necessary changes to the way they run their operations.
Instead, they have doubled down on measurement to quantify where we’re starting from when it comes to issues such as emissions and put out endless reams of PR implying that this is the same as actually doing something. In all but the most progressive and sophisticated of organisations, there has been startlingly little progress in actually pursuing more sustainable business practices.
It is imperative that we get started immediately; we are already behind. This will become all the more true as we see the results come in from 2022’s frenzy of running the numbers. As measurement becomes more robust and disclosures more comprehensive, it is likely that the current state of play will be revealed to be considerably worse than we anticipate.
Not only does failure to act now come with disastrous consequences for the planet and its people, it also signals true business risk. Some penalties already exist for flouting certain ESG issues; UK headquartered companies, for example, can face fines up to £20 million and their executives risk two year prison terms if found to be knowingly operating using modern slavery. Last year, we saw the Shell ruling in which the fossil fuel giant was taken to court by private citizens and ultimately deemed legally liable for the emissions of not just its own operations, but also of “the suppliers and customers of the group”.
More recently, the UN has called for the end of greenwashing and corporate inaction as its High-Level Expert Group On the Net Zero Emissions Commitments of Non-State Entities launched their Integrity Matters Report at COP27. In it, they make “a call for governments to regulate net zero commitments, starting with large emitters” – a rallying cry which should signal to all enterprise businesses that more scrutiny is coming. This rising tide will not – and should not – slow.
As businesses look to make improvements fast, it will be necessary to decide where it’s most efficient to pool our time and resources. The key lies outside our own four walls. With over 80% of large enterprises’ emissions impact and 90% of their impact on land, sea, air, biodiversity, and natural resources sitting within their value chains, it is clear that large corporates simply cannot be sustainable without involving their suppliers.
To address this reality, sustainable procurement has emerged – both as a movement, and as a distinct business unit. Yet, despite the huge growth in such departments and job titles over 2022, the maturity level is still low across the board.
That’s because sustainable procurement is broad-ranging and complex, touching multiple areas including technology, data architecture, finance, and more. As such, organisations need to consider how they go about selecting the right procurement platforms, how to harness supplier innovation, how they build their sustainable procurement priorities, how they change their current procurement practices and culture.
Perhaps of most importance is how they construct a robust business case for sustainable procurement and gain that all-important executive sponsorship. Proactively pursuing supplier sustainability delivers multiple benefits. It allows organisations to increase their awareness of possible risks, it future-proofs the business against ever-evolving legislation as well as delivers brand reputation and growth benefits.
Of equal importance is how an organisation goes about building a successful post-contract sustainable procurement programme and this is where Supplier Collaboration and Innovation really helps.
As COP27 finishes, let’s hope that corporate greenwashing stops and that organisations see the critical importance, as well as their responsibility and accountability for prioritising the climate crisis NOW.