The sustainability ground is moving under our feet, it is moving under the feet of the businesses we work with. We had a few years where we thought we all got the sustainability priorities and knew what doing enough looked like. 2020 changed that and now, we in the sustainability sector and the businesses we help face higher expectations, a broader agenda and tougher competition than ever before.

2020 was, of course the year that Covid hit us and hit us hard, a year when we all reeled from repeated waves of virus, lockdown and economic shock, we are still reeling. At the start I was reminded of the end of 2008 and the collapse of Lehman Brothers, it felt like the world was stopping and everyone I spoke to in business was moving to a defensive crouch. Survival became the mantra for many as the credit crunch bit and sustainable business became a very discretionary idea. But I was wrong, our phones did go quiet for a few weeks and the first half of the year was significantly slower than we had planned for, but as spring became summer, sustainability not only stayed on the corporate agenda, it grew. Not only have more organisations than ever asked for our help, but a wider variety (from robots and underwear, through charities and cars, to investment and art) of businesses are taking on sustainable action. The challenges we are helping with are more strategic, wider and longer-term. The ground has moved.

So what happened? I am no historian or economist, but conversations with business leaders suggest three things moved the dial:

1) We now understand that large scale catastrophes can happen and they will impact us.

We are now living such a catastrophe and pretty much every business’s risk management approach was found wanting. That climate change might be far worse, far more direct, urgent and severe than a century-long 1.5-degree temperature rise might suggest, has been underlined by horrific images of widespread fires in California and Australia. And maybe the idea that climate change might happen somewhere else and that it be alright here, has been put to bed by the widespread exposure that many businesses suffered as their direct and indirect supply chains stuttered, as Wuhan and other manufacturing bases closed down – critical problems in one part of the world can have a global impact. I think we all now know that every business will be touched by climate change and will need to act, we can no longer avoid considering climate risk.

2) People matter

Not just that but many, many of us care how much businesses look after their people and the people that work in their supply chains. From the terrible and the ok, to the great responses to Covid – we had whole workforces laid off almost immediately, to really great companies doing everything they could to protect their workers. Black Lives Matter hauled us all back to the vital need to be anti-racist. Not just personally but institutionally, far too many people are undermined by the systemic failings that we are all part of. Businesses and employers must act not just talk – diversity, inclusion and people are rightly back up the agenda – 50ish years after Milton Freidman’s essay I think we all get that business must have purpose beyond profit.

3) We got to 2021

This might seem trivial compared to what we have gone through, but an awful lot of organisations set their ambitions and targets for 2020, so for many it was the year of “what next?”. The plans have come back out and the strategies put under review, the next five years or the next ten. Curiously, targets for carbon neutrality/net zero that are either too short (we will be net zero next year) or too long (we will be net zero by 2063) are being roundly discounted. The credible middle ground of 2030ish is rising up the agenda. If you are in a business without a sustainability plan, I think you might trip up as the ground moves…

In amongst all that we have seen the rise of circular business models, sustainable sourcing and relentless pressure to remove plastic from products. 2020 saw massive changes in electric vehicles with every major brand providing EV options and many seeing their market flipping to majority electric within the decade. Sustainable finance grows a pace, I would say that investor pressure is now the most common reason businesses talk to us, and understanding whether assets are truly sustainable the most common reason investors come our way. More and more businesses want to look at the good they do, not just minimising the harm – a tough one to get right. Renewable energy is moving to the mainstream and I have lost count of the number of businesses struggling with tying their actions to the UN sustainable development goals. It is not just climate change action but sustainable business we need.

At Avieco our mission is to make sustainability more than a word. We collaborate with people and businesses across the economy to take on their sustainability challenges as if they were our own. It’s a vital mission that is becoming more important, more varied, and harder. We know that every business must be sustainable and that that means credible ambition and credible action. Not just talk. The targets must be stretching but believable and based in science. The action plans a genuine roadmap not just a mask for business as usual and the business case needs to show an environmental and a social return on investment, not just a financial one.

So what’s to do in 2021?

Well, if anyone in business still thinks sustainability doesn’t concern them, they might find themselves an outlier. It is time for every business to step up and set out their ambition for a sustainable version of themselves, and Avieco will step up with you. We know that what we are doing today will not be enough tomorrow and our fantastic team is ready to help in  2021.

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more than a word.

We get that change is not easy. But we must be brave, challenge old ways, set new habits, embrace new thinking.