Six months in: reflections on a new sustainability landscape

Ashleigh returned to Australia at the beginning of this year to become Edge’s Head of Sustainability Leadership and Communications. Six months in, she reflects on the changes she’s found, and the opportunities she’s seen, across the Australian sustainability landscape.

After five years in London working with some of the most ambitious sustainability teams in the world, I recently moved back home to join Edge as Head of Sustainability Leadership & Communications.

I’ll admit, I was nervous about coming back. While I was in London, I was lucky enough to work with some incredible companies including Lego, Google, Maersk, Mondi and many more companies across the UK, Europe and US where sustainability is deeply entrenched. I’d kept an eye on the sustainability agenda back home and had flashbacks to a deeply polarised political discourse, a sceptical public and a business community sometimes reticent to take a public leadership position.

Over the past few months since coming home, I’ve been blown away by the progress the sustainability agenda has made. I’ve spotted mainstream, consumer-facing sustainability positioning by some of our most recognisable brands, seen marked shifts in rhetoric and behaviour, and met a range of impressive individuals making sustainability commonplace. But there are still some big opportunities for Australian businesses, Government and NGOs to align even more closely with global sustainability momentum. Here are three of those areas and some tips for getting it right.

  1. Define the value proposition of sustainability

Too often we focus all of our time and energy on delivering a project, report or initiative but forget to think about who it’s for (i.e. investors, customers, employees, suppliers or the wider community) and the value it provides them. We need to get better at telling our sustainability stories in a way that engages people and addresses their needs. We should all be asking ourselves:

  • What are our customers / investors / employees / suppliers needs?
  • How are our sustainability efforts addressing these needs?
  • What makes our approach special, unique or different?
  • What’s the best way to get our message out to them?
  1. Contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in a meaningful way

This year has seen a 11% rise in ASX150 members mentioning the SDGs in their reporting. But there is still a long way to go to catch up with best-practice set by members of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, whose members are overwhelmingly (86%) use the SDGs as a key framework for sustainability strategy and communications.

Here are some tips for reporting contributions in a meaningful way:

  • Use the SDGs to unlock business unusual. Too often, companies label what they’ve been doing as part of BAU as contribution to the SDGs meaning we’re not actually driving change. A quick way to test this is if you’ve had a sustainability target in place since before the SDGs came into existence (2016) then you shouldn’t be labelling it as a contribution to the SDGs.
  • Use the SDGs to measure your positive contribution at scale: this is about aligning the fundamentals of your business with the SDGs. Are you making and selling products/services that genuinely have a positive contribution to one or more of the Goals? If so, great, tell people about it.
  • Don’t forget your negative impacts: while you may be kicking goals on some SDGs, it’s entirely possible your business is creating negative impacts in other areas. Ensure the right steps are being taken to manage both sides of the equation.
  • Go beyond the goal level. There are almost 170 targets that support each of the 17 goals. Report progress on those targets to show you are taking a meaningful approach.
  1. Bring sustainability to life at a product level

Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) are something we work on a lot here at Edge. We like them because they’re science-based and third party verified, providing customers with a very transparent source of information. However, they’re also a great illustration of a consistent challenge that our clients face: bringing sustainability to life.

Customers are increasingly looking for sustainable products, but relatively few people know what EPDs are, and fewer still know what they mean. That’s where we need a stronger interface between sustainability teams and their marketing colleagues. Working together, they can translate what can be dry, technical information into a value proposition for customers. The same logic applies to a whole host of sustainability initiatives, from circular economy to science-based targets: companies need to spend more time thinking through how to communicate leadership at product level.

In summary, there’s some truly amazing work happening to drive the sustainability agenda forward, but we can’t forget to take a step back, look up and out and tell the story.

Over the coming months, Edge will be releasing research on Sustainability Leadership in Australia. The project, based on interviews with contributors from a range of sustainability, marketing and investor engagement professionals from business, academia and government, will set out where the market is up to and practical opportunities to accelerate progress. For more information, contact us.   

Ashleigh Gay
Ashleigh Gay

Head of Sustainability Leadership | Principal Consultant


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