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The greenwashing risk posed by COP26

Given’s James Edney explores the importance of responsible and authentic communications around sustainability

James Edney, Strategy Director, Given

Strategy Director, Given

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I can resist everything except temptation… and the chance to talk up my business’ climate commitments during COP26

For sustainability professionals, COP26 feels like a real moment. This November we witness the convergence of commercial and business strategies as brands rebuild post-pandemic whilst also sustainability dominates headlines as the climate crisis continues to escalate. Has there ever been such a time where we see a renewed focus on the fundamental purpose of business as consumers exert their influence through what they’re willing to post and purchase from a brand? 

Sustainability teams will be a hive of activity in the coming weeks and COP26 is an opportunity for greater time with senior leaders and no doubt marketing and PR colleagues. But with this opportunity comes great responsibility to not overclaim, misinform, or mislead stakeholders, as well-intentioned as any communications might be

Real progress on climate and related social issues will come from long-term commitments underpinned by robust roadmaps and clear action plans. Immediate action is great but when COP26 has passed and there are new competing priorities, it is the strength of the commitment and leadership demonstrated today that will reveal which brands are taking a serious approach to their environmental and social responsibilities.

For a month or two - we hope - the dialogue around climate change will be frantic and full of energy. This in turn presents a chance for businesses to be part of the conversation, to learn, share, and inspire others with their action and commitment. Whilst you don’t have to be perfect to talk about your sustainability strategy or climate plans, there are a few things you can do to avoid greenwash - and we can certainly expect greater scrutiny on claims made during COP26, especially by those without a track record of action or those that are making particularly striking claims:

  • Be honest about what you have done, aim to do and can deliver. Action on the climate crisis doesn’t need perfection, it needs progress and ambition. By taking a long-term view you can plot a path forwards that enables you to be part of the discussion during COP26 but doesn’t over commit you on day one
  • Be part of the conversation by engaging in dialogue. Comms around COP26 and climate action will be more credible if it is two-way, rather than brands transmitting out messaging with no opportunity for audiences to respond or join the conversation.
  • Be more than just a headline. Whilst all great comms need a headline, it is the substance that really matters when it comes to climate action. We’re not saying make data and KPIs your lead, but bold ambition is best believed when you can see some of the research, thinking or data that it is built upon
  • Be clear on the roadmap for delivering your big goal or commitment. Credible action that shows a clear progression from one year to the next in the form of roadmaps and action plans is not only a great exercise in transparency but shows that big ideas have been thought through and are actually deliverable

The proof of the pudding will be when COP has finished; to then see who is still talking up their climate commitments, who is still pushing a new agenda for customers and colleagues and most importantly to see who is delivering real change in their organisations. COP26 is not a moment for brands, it is the beginning of what needs to come next for business.

Guest Author

James Edney, Strategy Director, Given

Strategy Director, Given

About

James brings 13 years’ sustainability experience in both corporate and third sector environments. He is an expert in strategy development, materiality, and stakeholder engagement. James’ work focuses on bringing stakeholders together to co-create solutions that can be clearly articulated and effectively implemented. James has experience across a range of sectors and has worked with clients including Unilever, Ikea, OVO, Swarovski, and Ferrero.

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