4 corporate sustainability trends all business leaders should be watching in 2018

Today marks my one year anniversary of joining EDF Climate Corps, where I’ve spent the last 12 months helping companies think through the strategies for meeting – or setting – their climate goals. What I’ve learned in this short time is that companies are going beyond the “safe bet” to tackling bigger and more impactful projects. In doing so, I’ve identified four important trends in corporate sustainability this year that all business leaders should be watching.

But before we get into these trends, let’s step back and look at how corporate sustainability has evolved. In my previous role as president of Green Impact Campaign, I helped thousands of small businesses get their foot into the sustainability door by investing in energy efficiency. It was a low-risk, reliable way to cut costs and reduce their carbon footprint. Now, with EDF Climate Corps, I’m working with businesses to go beyond implementing the already-proven strategies – like energy efficiency – to setting new trends that others will follow.

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I'm lovin' it: McDonald's exemplifies a sustainability leader

McDonald’s – the world’s largest restaurant company – recently announced new climate goals,  which were quickly followed by many comments like this one, from Axios:

"These are concrete targets, but they’re not as of yet backed up with specific plans of how to get there."

Axios is right. These are concrete targets (and they’ve been approved by the Science-Based Targets Initiative).  Here are the details: by 2030, McDonald’s is pledging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from their restaurants and offices by 36 percent, and reduce their emissions intensity (per metric ton of food and packaging) across their supply chain by 31 percent. The company estimates these reductions will prevent 150 million metric tons of C02 equivalents (CO2e) from being released into the atmosphere. That’s huge – it’s the equivalent of removing 32 million cars from the road for one year.

But I want to challenge Axios in saying that the company has “no specific plans" to get there.

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Business will not walk backward on climate

Our businessman president just flunked one of the most important tests of his presidency: failing to listen to business leaders on the Paris climate agreement.

Despite the hundreds of companies and corporate CEOs calling for continued U.S. leadership on climate – in full-page ads in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, on the Low Carbon USA website, and in direct outreach to the administration – Trump chose to side with the laggards. This is deeply disappointing and will harm American workers and business by undermining our competitiveness in the global clean energy economy.

Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement, however, will not stem the tide of American businesses taking action to stabilize the climate and safeguard our planet. Private sector leaders, unlike our president, have moved beyond the false choice of a healthy economy or a healthy environment; we need both. Which is why leading companies and investors are poised to deliver clean air, clean water and clean energy in ways that increase jobs, incomes and competitiveness.

Tom Murray, VP Corporate Partnerships, EDF

While the Trump administration has ceded global leadership on climate, corporate America is moving ahead with plans to invest in clean energy and cut emissions. Long-term, global competitiveness demands it.

Leadership on climate and energy is driven by long-term economics, not short-term politics.

American business won’t back down from this latest challenge. In fact, it seems the business community is more motivated on climate than ever before. Cargill CEO David MacLennan summed it up best: “Cargill has no intention of backing away from our efforts to address climate change in our supply chains around the world and in fact this would inspire us to work even harder.”

Companies need to forge ahead by pursing aggressive science-based, emissions reduction targets and expanding their efforts to slash emissions throughout their operations and supply chains. Take PepsiCo, which recently announced that its climate goal to reduce absolute GHG emissions across its value chain by at least 20% by 2030 has been approved by the Science Based Targets initiative.

Business leaders can use Hewlett Packard Enterprises as a model. The information technology company created the world’s first comprehensive supply chain management program based on climate science and requires 80% of manufacturing suppliers to set science-based emissions reduction targets by 2025.

And just last week – despite the unsettled future of U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement – Tyson Foods announced it will develop science-based greenhouse gas and outcome-based water conservation targets for their entire supply chain.

These high-impact corporate initiatives need to be applauded, and the tools and resources used to achieve these goals should be replicated across industries.

Business will not allow positive climate momentum to come to a halt

The clean energy momentum generated by business over the last decade will not come to an abrupt halt. Companies like Apple, AB InBev and Walmart will not turn their back on the clean energy commitments they’ve made to customers, employees and the planet. Investors, like we saw with ExxonMobil, will keep pressure on companies to clearly report how climate change is affecting business.  And CEOs like General Electric's Jeffrey Immelt or Tesla's Elon Musk, who have been outspoken about remaining in the Paris agreement, will not back away from their company’s climate efforts because they understand how leaving Paris will make it harder to do business around the world. These voices need to keep encouraging others in the business community to join their efforts.

What is the plan? Inaction is unacceptable.

In this new post-Paris world, companies must now demand that the Trump administration and Congress deliver a plan to address climate change. Leading cities, states and companies will continue to move forward, but won’t be enough to deliver the reductions required from the world’s second largest emitter.  Smart climate and energy policy is required to provide the deep emission reductions the world needs and the certainty that business needs for planning, investment decisions, and job growth.

Unfortunately, the president failed to listen to the business community he was once a proud part of for so many years. With the President lagging behind, real business leaders will continue to step up lead the way to a thriving clean energy economy; EDF will have their back. We will continue to engage with business in this time of uncertainty to help shape a future where both business and nature prosper.

If the president won’t listen to business leaders in the future on climate, I hope he will follow the words of one of his favorite presidents, Abraham Lincoln, who said, “I walk slowly, but I never walk backward.”


Follow Tom on Twitter, @tpmurray


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