March 29, 2023

Climate Change and the C-Suite

Shailja Sharma

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Climate change poses a global challenge that transcends borders and has asserted itself as the defining issue of our time. Stark evidence of climate change on regional and global scales is becoming more disturbing and the future of our planet seems to hang in the balance. For decades, this issue was side-lined but  alarm is now driving action.

At the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, Deloitte unveiled the 2023 CxO Sustainability Report: Accelerating the Green Transition. C-level business leaders have ranked climate change as a top three issue according to the report. Furthermore, 75% of the C-level executive respondents of the 2016 CxOs from 24 countries say that their organisations have increased sustainability investments. The respondents also asserted that climate change has impacted their organisations in some way over the past year. Adverse weather events have cost some companies millions of dollars and some C-level executives have reported that they had been personally impacted by adverse weather events.

There is increasing pressure from regulators and governments as well as shareholders and investors to advance sustainability efforts. C-Suite level executives need to focus on sustainability and energy efficiency for the future of their organisations and humanity itself.

If you are a C-level executive, there are several compelling reasons why you need to prioritise climate change and prepare your business to address this complex, evolving issue. For decades, the slow pace of this problem allowed it to be side-lined. Erratic global weather patterns that have led to devastating droughts, floods, fires, and famine have revealed that we can longer leave this issue on the back burner.

Additionally, it is becoming apparent that climate change is not going away any time soon. Unless everyone does their part, it will get worse. Corporate leaders globally must take robust measures to prepare for climate-related risks and reduce emissions that contribute to this problem. Climate risks now equate to financial risks. Corporations are now being called upon to own up and act to reduce their carbon footprint.

Prepare for the Inevitable

What does this mean for your business? The cost of doing business is increasing with energy crises, global supply chain disruptions and inflation negatively impacting businesses across many sectors.  To safeguard your financial future, it is imperative that you stay ahead of the curve. Across the globe, governments are moving towards requiring businesses to disclose climate risk reports and make the transition to becoming net zero-carbon corporations. It is only a matter of time before these policies become enforced. Companies will have nowhere to hide in the future.

A company’s reputation is a public perception of the company and how it operates. A business that willingly tackles climate change in advance will be viewed more favourably than one that begrudgingly complies when it is forced to do so. The perception of environmental issues has shifted in the public eye. People are demanding reform as their taps run dry during droughts that were previously unheard of. Wildfires have left many homeless, and crops have been destroyed. Your stance on climate change is now more important to your consumers than ever.

Following the “Great Reset,” and the ensuing war for talent, companies realised the importance of attracting and retaining the best talent. Employees that have been directly or indirectly impacted by climate change may not wish to work for a company that is not aligned with their value system and the issues that deeply affect them.

Investors are also on the lookout for companies that are tackling the situation to invest in. In every crisis there is an opportunity. Look at the silver lining and find opportunities to champion the issue of climate change. Funding opportunities for companies that are not fighting this issue or at least re-engineering some of their processes to become more environmentally friendly may well shrink as time goes on.

Become Informed

Leaders can no longer afford to be uninformed about this issue. Consider taking a course in climate change that will help you navigate the complexities of this issue. Adapting your company to deal with these problems may be challenging. Moving your business towards zero emissions and successfully implementing strategies for climate change risk mitigation and adaptation will depend on the knowledge you and your executives gain about this topic.

The tsunami of news and information on this topic in the media has broadened awareness. However, as a leader you will still need to demystify the links between planetary health and your company’s product portfolio, consumer behaviour and business strategy. How does your marketing department communicate effectively on ESG disclosure and sustainability? Do the decision-makers in your company understand how climate change impacts procurement strategies? Do your employees understand how every element of their work impacts the environment?

Reduce Wastage

Start with identifying where your business can reduce wastage. Scrutinise your supply chain and figure out how you can design your business to become sustainable. Customers are increasingly demanding businesses to have minimal or no impact on the environment. They may be willing to pay a premium for products from companies that can demonstrate a strong commitment to sustainable business practices.

Pivot Towards more Sustainable Practices

A useful first step is to conduct an audit of all the operations within your business to see where you can reduce environmental impact. Assemble cross-functional teams to brainstorm on reducing energy use, reducing waste and increasing recycling, reducing use of natural resources such as water and re-engineering processes to become more efficient. Recycling helps reduce greenhouse emissions by reducing energy consumption. Using recycled materials to make new products reduces the need for virgin materials that reduces the need for extracting and mining these materials. Additionally, waste prevention and recycling paper products allows more trees to survive and continue removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Developing new, climate-friendly products or services and recruiting suppliers and business partners that meet specific sustainability criteria will also help.

Updating or relocating facilities to make them more resistant to climate impacts can help to stop power interruptions and destruction of property.  Furthermore, explore ways to make your businesses more energy efficient. Look into investing in renewable energy that can in turn make your business more resilient to climate change-related power cuts and variations in fuel prices. Invest in technology to automate processes to make them more efficient. If your business involves transport, consider ways to reduce your carbon footprint.

Work towards Net Zero Emissions

The first step you can take towards realising the goal of net zero carbon emissions is to calculate your carbon footprint and determine strategies to reduce and offset emissions. There are tools and certifiers that can help with this process. Focus on progress, not perfection.

We live in a polarised world with geopolitical tensions exacerbating this urgent problem. The corporate sector has more agility than governments and can marshal greater resources as well as the communities they serve to combat this problem. Corporate leaders have the greatest potential to become good stewards of our planet’s resources and lead the fight against the menace of climate change. Tying senior leader compensation to sustainability performance can be a motivating factor. By displaying an earnest commitment to tackling climate change, C-level executives can lead the fight to beat this scourge.

Article by Shailja Sharma, SBS Faculty Member and Leadership and Career Coach

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