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Connor Faulkner


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What does COP26 mean to HR professionals?

What does COP26 mean and how can you use the conference as a catalyst for your business to drive action?

More people than ever before have woken up to the fact that we need to take immediate action to protect our planet and address the climate crisis. 

An increasing number of young people consider themselves to be climate activists, and we’ve seen a sharp rise in disruptive social action – from nationwide protests and youth strikes, to blocking motorways in protest.

That’s where COP26 – or the UN’s Conference of the Parties on Climate Change – comes in. It’s where world leaders and principal scientists will unite to agree on steps countries can take to tackle the climate emergency.

And, as co-host of the event, the UK set the ambitious goal of cutting carbon emissions by 78% by 2035. After the pandemic put paid to last year’s event, there’s a real need for the 26th conference to encourage impactful, lasting change. 

And being realistic, if we’re 26 conferences in, to echo Greta Thunberg’s feeling: “The leaders will say we’ll do this and we’ll do this, and we will put our forces together and achieve this, and then they will do nothing … we can have as many COPs as we want, but nothing real will come out of it.”

The event is intended as a forum to drive awareness and change. But given the lofty, seemingly unapproachable challenge it aims to tackle, it can often switch off even the most environmentally-conscious citizen. But there are people that are still willing and able to make a difference. You just have to know how to harness their energy for good.

Companies have an unparalleled opportunity to empower keen colleagues to bring the business’s environmental strategies to life and drive meaningful change. So how can you rally the troops to help curb your company’s impact on the planet?

Before you start …

What are you trying to achieve? It might seem obvious – you’re trying to do your bit to save the planet! But that ambition is a little too broad for most people. 

That’s why you need to define your ambitions first. That means translating your environmental goals into messages that are personal, relevant and simple. 

You’ll need to convey a blend of what you want to do and why naturally, coupled with the potential impact – reminding people that it’s not just climate change you’re tackling, but poverty and inequality. Keep constructive journalism principles in mind with your communications, focusing on solutions and what’s next.

And don’t forget the business benefits, too. Customers are expecting you to be more mindful of your environmental impact. It’s not just the right thing to do – it’s about securing your own future.

Empower everyone from the off

Usually, comms best practice dictates that you need leadership buy-in to make anything happen in an organisation. That’s true, but driving change from the top down can only do so much. 

So empower everyone across a business to do their bit, involving people from all teams and divisions from the start – even the community and external partners. Don’t get stuck in a rut of pleasing everyone, but do listen. 

To make change happen, embed your environmental challenges in every role. That means shattering misconceptions and busting myths: what does the climate emergency mean to your average shop floor colleague – and how can they make a difference? 

Give your green champions the permission to tell their stories the way they want to and shake up the status quo. If they want to do a series of educational TikToks or share their brightest ideas, let them.

Just work with them to make sure that the groundswell is effective and lands and makes an impact, rather than being an uncoordinated campaign that means well, but does little.

Be realistic – and stubbornly optimistic

Many of your colleagues will be aware of some things they can change: a lengthy commute, excessive consumption or keeping the lights on. But fewer will know the gritty details of carbon neutrality, net zero and climate temperature targets. 

As with any message, it’s dangerous to assume knowledge – especially when you need someone to take direct, immediate action. So you’ll need to set the scene, bust some myths and bring your people up to speed on some of the jargon. And ask yourself, what do they really need to know?

While doing this, take a stubbornly optimistic tone. Recognise that change will be difficult, but that it is possible – and necessary. After all, you’re taking action because you’re determined to tackle the biggest challenge of this generation head-on. Remember, it’s not climate change. It’s a code red for humanity, according to the UN.

Break down the buzzwords

Green thinking is filled with technical language that can turn away all but the most passionate advocates. In fact, as soon as the term sustainability appears, a large chunk of your audience might switch off. It’s too broad, too lofty and is marred with negative connotations. 

Instead, opt for something a little more direct. Position your messaging around making an impact, changing things for better, or protecting the planet. 

And when you kick off any activity, kill jargon at every available opportunity. Spell out every mention of carbon capture, the UN’s SDGs or offsetting explicitly. 

Be honest – but avoid greenwashing

Sometimes known as ‘green sheen’, this is when a business spins its ecological ambitions to sound far greater than its achievements, making it look more environmentally friendly than it actually is.

Avoiding green sheen means a change of mindset – to go from showing off and sharing your success to remembering the bigger picture: the purpose behind what you’re doing and who you’re in service to. 

It takes honesty and vulnerability to tell the world how you’re progressing, and even admitting responsibility for past actions. So if you want to praise anyone, make it your colleagues and turn them into the environmental champions at the heart of everything you do. 

Don’t let perfect get in the way of better

Remember that unless you’ve set some easily attainable short-term goals, this is one of the longest journeys your business will likely take. Carbon neutrality is a huge task that requires every colleague, team and department to know what’s in their line of sight and how they can act to effect change. 

With such a monumental task at hand, perfection is the enemy of getting stuff done. Small incremental improvements are needed right now – tackling food waste, single-use plastics, or instigating behavioural change tactics to remind people to switch the lights off – do what you can, and do it now. 

This shows your people that you’re serious about making change happen, and they’ll be more likely to do their bit as a result. So once you’ve led by example, give your people small, actionable steps and tips that they can put to work in the office, or at home. 

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Connor Faulkner

Writer and editor

Read more from Connor Faulkner

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