Ahead of World Environment Day 2021, we look at the opportunities for business - and procurement teams - to drive actionable and significant change. 

Recent months have seen the topic of sustainability shifted into sharper focus. In recent weeks, the Government has been called upon to make radical new climate change commitments and has pledged to treble England’s tree planting to tackle climate crisis.  

The 2020s have also been named by the Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) chairman as the “decisive decade of progress and action.” Whilst economic recovery continues to take precedence, the race against climate change demands immediate and effective action to rejuvenate and save our planet – before it’s too late.

In a recent podcast hosted by Simon Lipscomb, director at Efficio Consulting, Professor Paul Ekins OBE, professor of Resources and Environment Policy at University College London, explores the themes of sustainability and environmental and social governance. What Professor Ekins – one of the most esteemed and respected thinkers in the field – had to say was both fascinating and terrifying in equal measures.

Read more: Why it’s important for SMEs to be net zero

Shining a light on sustainability

The pair discussed how today’s business leaders are under more pressure than ever before to drive sustainable initiatives and address climate change. Sustainability is now a board issue for good reason. Customers and investors are demanding it, with many basing their perception of a business on how it takes on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues.

The issues surrounding sustainability have increased in impact during the pandemic.

In fact, more than 70% of companies interviewed for research commissioned by the Carbon Trust, said environmental management and/or sustainability priorities have become ‘somewhat more important’ or ‘significantly more important’ for them as a result of COVID-19.

“The pandemic shone a much-needed light on sustainability. Change is now being driven from the very top, reinforced by steep targets set out by the UK Government, in its effort to reach net zero emissions by 2050,” said Simon Lipscomb.

Paul Ekins agreed that it’s crucial for government and businesses to work more closely together. “There are many, many businesses that are going way beyond regulation to address some of the issues. However, they often have their hands tied because they are in a competitive environment, and they are afraid that if they were to do any more, they would go bust.”

Unlocking the opportunities within

As businesses look to respond to these trends, many – even those with a deep commitment to sustainable practices – are struggling to fully unlock the opportunities within their organisations. Becoming a more sustainable business requires a ‘whole of business’ approach. But there is a growing recognition that procurement has a central, and often overlooked, role to play.

The role of procurement is to identify and mitigate risks while capturing opportunities. In many situations, mitigating these risks can lead to identification of environmental and social improvements that deliver value to an organisation.

“In today’s increasingly competitive and volatile market, many businesses are jumping on the sustainability bandwagon. But it will be those that leverage the insight of procurement that will start to see the green shoots of change,” Simon added.

Is enough being done?

Unfortunately, the fear is that not enough is being done. “One of my jobs is to co-chair the United Nations Global Environment Outlook; a comprehensive statement about the state of the environment that draws on the knowledge of 200 scientists from all over the world. It is really scary stuff,” explained Paul. “The way we are using our planet is unsustainable.”

“Whilst economic growth is extremely environmentally disruptive, it doesn’t have to be. By working together, governments, businesses, and citizens can achieve a high standard of living – but at a tiny fraction of the environmental burden we have today.”

Paul Ekins

However, there is a glimmer of light for Paul. “I have been doing this for 30 years and believe we’re in a much better place now in terms of awareness and a willingness to do something about it. Unfortunately, the planet is also in a much, much worse state too. The problem is getting worse, faster than we are getting better. We have, therefore, got to accelerate to catch up.”

No vaccine for climate change

“We all have the pressures of everyday life. However, as a society we are becoming more aware of climate change than ever before because we are suddenly seeing wildfires, floods, and extreme storms on the news,” Paul said.

While without change we are in danger of the earth becoming a much, much less habitable place, Paul has an optimistic tone. “We are living at an incredibly special time. The people alive today can ensure that human lives in the future are civilised and liveable. All going well, the planet’s got several billion more years’ worth of sunlight; however, there is no vaccine for climate change. It is, therefore, imperative that we act now.”

World Environment Day takes place on June 5th. You can listen to Efficio’s podcast with Professor Paul Ekins OBE in full here.