Kids skipping school may not be able to change the world, but the climate-change school strikes started by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg in November 2018 show how the sustainability debate is heating up. By the end of May this year, student protests had affected 131 countries, and politicians worldwide have been snapping selfies with the young activists.
It’s not just kids. Everyone’s expectations are changing: 62% of 30,000 consumers in 35 countries surveyed by an IT company in late 2018 want companies to take a stand on issues such as sustainability, transparency and ethical employment practices. Today, 90% of CEOs state that sustainability is important to their company’s success, according to the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute.
Companies, investors and banks are committing to sustainability. In May, German auto manufacturer Mercedes-Benz made a promise to go carbon neutral by 2039—no mean feat for an automaker. From 2012 to October 2018, assets managed in accordance with environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles increased 60%, to reach $1.05 trillion, according to Morningstar. “Momentum is building,” says Eoin Murray, head of investment at London-based Hermes Investment Management, which has $44.4 billion of assets under management. “It’s not a style.”
Short-Term Pains, Long-Term Gains
A report from the Network for Greening the Financial System (NGFS), a 36-member group of central banks, makes it clear that climate change is an existential issue for financial institutions. A letter published concurrently in April by Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England; François Villeroy de Galhau, governor of the Bank of France; and Frank Elderson, chairman of NGFS, says a “sudden collapse in asset prices” driven by climate change is possible without prompt action.
Léon Wijnands, head of Sustainability at ING Group in Amsterdam, agrees. ING sees the issue mainly in business terms. “Our clients are facing massive transition challenges as they adopt technology for a low-carbon world,” says Wijnands. “That transition needs to be financed, and we want to do it. It’s also about future-proofing and derisking ING for our shareholders, which are increasingly focused on issues like the business impact of climate.
Aligning With Client Expectations
If consumers are focusing on sustainability, and regulators are encouraging it, then smart companies will clearly look to improve their sustainability performance. But committing to sustainability and adapting your business model to it are two different things. So what does a sustainable business look like? Kimberly-Clark, a global personal-care corporation, is on the front lines when it comes to sustainability. It produces mostly paper-based disposable products like Andrex toilet paper and Huggies disposable diapers and is one of the world’s largest buyers of market pulp. It leads, in part, because it sells directly to consumers, who are rapidly embracing sustainability.
Change Is Unstoppable
The US is due to exit the Paris Agreement on climate change next year, dealing it a blow. But the EU and China are pressing ahead with the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations and driving regulatory change to spur investors, banks and companies to innovate and reconsider their business models.
Many entities, including in the US, are responding with gusto. Sustainability—in its broad environmental, social and economic sense—has unstoppable momentum. Certainly, some firms are guilty of “greenwashing.” They want to be seen as doing the right thing, but without really changing. But the simple fact that sustainability is increasingly making the headlines—not just in eco-focused Europe, but also in the US and in fast-growing emerging market countries such as China and India—indicates that change is afoot. It may be that recent extreme weather events have shifted the threat from a future possibility to a present-day reality for corporate strategists and consumers alike. The more clients care about sustainability, the more service providers will explore sustainable opportunities; a virtuous circle has already begun.