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Talking about climate

Climate change has gripped the corporate imagination. The unique range of threats and opportunities it represents; the fact that all economic sectors are implicated; high and rising public awareness: these things are combining to compel companies of all stripes to sit up and take notice.
One result is that firms are increasingly bringing climate change into their conversations with customers. A business conference held by ENDS in London in September demonstrated how complex a field this is and the numerous pitfalls that await the unwary company.
Britain is in many ways a test-bed for this discussion. The UK has lagged behind many of its neighbours in developing technical responses to environmental challenges. But its corporate sector and citizens are good at talking about green issues.
In response to public awareness of environmental issues British companies have long since used green messages in advertising. In the late 1980s when public consciousness of the world’s threatened ozone layer was at its highest, one enterprising nappy manufacturer used the single word “eau-zone” on posters advertising its product.
Members of the public have been quick to complain if they detected ‘greenwash’: the first official ruling against corporate environmental claims dates back to 1988. Environmental groups have been active participants in the debate, regularly berating companies they believed were overstepping the mark.
The climate change debate is affecting all companies, and presentations at the ENDS conference demonstrated some of the key dos and don’ts for those choosing to – or being forced to – engage publicly.
It is essential for a firm to fully understand its own performance. As company after company has found, environmental issues are often exceedingly complex.
What seems to be the right answer on a cursory glance turns out to be wrong – or at least debatable – on a deeper look. The current confusion over whether transport biofuels are a good thing, neutral, or even downright awful, is a case in point.
Understanding the performance of competitors is equally important. Increasingly, the challenge for companies is not just to persuade customers that they are environmentally sensitive, but also that they are preferable to the opposition. Here the playing field is most definitely not level. Sectors with less obvious environmental impacts find it much easier to persuade consumers that they are green than traditional heavy industries, for example.
Companies selling aspirational goods also have an advantage. Toyota has had enormous success in presenting its hybrid Prius model as both desirable and green. Long-distance coach firms have a more difficult sell even though this is a far lower carbon form of travel – beating any other type of road or rail transport. Travelling by coach may be green, but it is not cool.
Either of these factors can be an obstacle, but firms can make a big difference if they make serious and systematic efforts to optimise their green performance before engaging publicly.
Another key lesson for companies is to engage with multiple stakeholders. Environmental groups are increasingly open to forging partnerships with business. Their endorsement can be a valuable component in any corporate environmental communications effort.
Investors are becoming just as important a stakeholder group. Initiatives like the Carbon Disclosure Project and green ranking initiatives like FTSE4Good mean there is increasingly no place for companies to hide from the climate or broader environmental agenda.
And the process has only just begun.

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