The Green Agenda: How to keep marching when the strike ends

This article was originally published by Sairah Ashman on her recurring Forbes column.

“Our house is on fire.” 

Greta Thunberg’s stark warnings, Extinction Rebellion’s funereal marches in blood-red attire, David Attenborough and climate activists across the globe, have finally struck a nerve in the popular imagination.

Unless you’re hiding under a rock, you’ll know that the UN’s Climate Action Summit is taking place next week and that the Global Climate Strike kicks off today (September 20).

The need to act is clear. While individuals can change habits, the weight of responsibility is on institutions: governments and businesses. But how best to act is fraught with conflict. Many business leaders fear taking a stand without having their own houses in order first. I’ve certainly experienced this.

Accusations of "greenwashing" or jumping on the bandwagon of a popular cause without making real changes to how we operate can be damaging. And if business leaders do change how they operate, they may fear that they are putting their businesses at a disadvantage compared with others who do not. With the weight of every employee’s job in your hands, this can become very serious indeed.  

There are many wonderful businesses built with a huge sense of purpose, commitment and alignment to the cause, such as the often-cited Patagonia. But not many companies have been built from the ground up in this way and despite the current groundswell of activism we remain fickle buyers. Marks & Spencer has an admirably robust supply chain built to support Plan A, but it’s been no protection from posting poor results this year, and even dropping out of the FTSE 100. Sustainability can’t be at the expense of desirability and price it seems.

Businesses that advocate for being greener without strong creds open themselves up to criticism and claims of hypocrisy. It’s easy to be caught out, as the royal couple Harry and Meghan recently learned, advocating for responsible tourism while being photographed stepping off a private jet.

How best to advance the climate agenda in your business and as a leader when you feel on less than solid ground?

I’m all-in on the need to support climate action, while being acutely aware that my own personal scorecard is mixed. At an individual level I have triple glazing, LED everything, a fearsome recycling regime and I don’t eat meat. However, I fly extensively each week for work and I don’t have an obvious alternative right now.

At a business level, we use our voice and our skills to support various initiatives, most notably and recently Chapter Zero. But we do this while working in air-conditioned environments and replacing our tech hardware regularly in ways that no amount of recycling is likely to offset.

Like many other business leaders, I’m left asking if we’re in a position to offer an opinion or tell others to take a stand when we don’t feel we’re doing enough ourselves.  

Colleagues tell me that the imperative to act is far too great to worry about being perfect. This is why we’ve signed up in support of Create and Strike, knowing that despite our imperfect state, we can make a difference.

We’re by no means alone. Tesco is planning to ban brands that use excessive packaging. Hunter is launching a sustainable, vegan range of wellies. Zara has pledged that its clothes will be 100% sustainable by 2025—the first international high street store to make such a commitment and part of Intidex, which is reportedly the world’s third-largest apparel company. The Body Shop has also recently opened a concept store that harks back to founder Anita Roddick’s activist values, testing stations where you can refill metal shower gel bottles.

However, questions remain over whether real sustainability is possible. Fashion alone uses 20% of the world’s wastewater and 10% of its energy. In fact, an article recently went viral for claiming it’s time we stop pretending we can do anything about climate change.  

Climate scientists have clapped back, claiming that although we will without a doubt witness climate change, there are mitigating efforts we can make. None of the brands I have mentioned here are perfect, and they will have received some backlash as well as commendation for their actions. But it comes down to this: it is more important to act and improve sustainability practices than to simply shout about its importance. And ideally, we should do both, wherever we are on the journey.