Senior Partner at the Winston Agency, a FINN Partners Company, specializing in sustainability communications and advocacy.
Eighteen years ago, purely by fortunate happenstance, my corporate communications work began moving into a new world of corporate sustainability. The United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)—precursors to the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals—were attracting attention in no small part because they ushered in an unprecedented global agreement by 189 countries to achieve eight goals in the pursuit of a more sustainable world.
At that time, the industry was also slowly moving forward with similar commitments via former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s UN Global Compact, which laid out a path for businesses to establish more sustainable practices.
In my industry, clients across almost every sector were seeing market growth and innovation opportunities connected to pursuing environmentally and socially responsible initiatives that would have the added benefit of corporate reputation lifts. And they wanted to engage fast.
Carefully crafted corporate communications plans set out to showcase the commercial contributions of organizations were not going to cut it anymore. It wasn’t that they needed to be abandoned altogether, but what corporate communications professionals like me had long practiced was not, over the long term, going to take our clients in the direction they needed to go.
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In 2005, the emerging sustainability landscape was different from what we in corporate communications could have envisioned. It was something that only some of us in the field knew much about. But like our clients, we needed to turn in a different direction to achieve long-term success—the success of the bottom line united with a sustainable planet.
For me, it meant a calculated pivot in how I would approach and deliver corporate reputation strategy to factor in the emerging landscape of sustainable development. I saw it less as a wholesale change to the corporate communications discipline and more as a nuanced adjustment and modification of what to recommend to clients and what they should do. That is generally the understood definition of “pivot.” It was surprising, to say the least, that the reaction among some communication peers and clients was that we were universally jettisoning our entire corporate communications methodologies and practices.
Today, like then, I can’t help but wonder: Why does the pivot get such a bad rap? Who among us has not had to adapt plans or tweak a process to get what we wanted in the first place? Why, to some, does a pivot seem like a desperate do-over? People evolve. They apply life learnings. So do dynamic companies.
Ambitious 2030 SDG targets, particularly climate goals pledges, are proving challenging to achieve. The much-maligned and misunderstood pivot has never been more vital, especially in corporate sustainability practices. In the close-out of 2022, November reporting from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) revealed that several of the largest consumer brands were going to miss targets around using only reusable, recyclable or compostable plastic packaging by 2025. That same month, an analysis from Accenture pointed out that 93% of the world’s largest companies that committed to achieving net zero (or carbon neutrality between CO2 emissions emitted and CO2 emissions removed from the atmosphere) won’t meet this ambition unless they double their pace of emissions reductions by 2030.
In my experience working with global manufacturers, meeting well-intentioned and seemingly achievable goal setting from 10 years ago has been hampered. The reasons—often justifiable—are many, ranging from the realities and complexities of geopolitical impacts on business; climate impacts that are occurring at a lighting quick pace, far faster than anyone could have predicted; R&D that’s just taking longer to get exactly right; and the two-year-plus global pandemic that upended everything.
If there was ever a justifiable time for companies to pivot, it’s now. Let’s be clear: By pivot, I mean taking an honest and hard look at what was intended, why it’s coming up short, and then adapting processes or actions taken to date to improve on what is needed to achieve desired results.
In no way should a pivot be mistaken for abandonment of commitments or, worse still, a restatement of claims to create an illusion of success. Substance and transparency are crucial lest a brand faces a (deserved) greenwashing accusation. Pivot does not mean backing off. It acknowledges the need to press on.
During the height of Covid-19, consumers did an about-face on packaging and the use of nonsustainable materials like single-use plastic. Anything that wasn’t disposable was suspect. No one wanted to drink out of the same faucet, let alone the same pitcher. Vital vaccines, medicines, and some foods and beverages had to be packaged in virgin plastic to meet state or federal health and regulatory requirements. Manufacturers met that demand, often at a cost to their sustainability goals and commitment to using plastic alternatives.
Now, with the crucial 2030 targets looming, it should be no surprise that some corporations are behind. So, does that mean they and we should back down in defeat? Or engage in finger-pointing that rarely succeeds in shaming organizations to do the right thing? No.
What is needed instead is the deployment and acceptance of a hard pivot. Not to back away, make excuses or hide. Instead, to adapt practices, operations and technology with resolve and agility and turn alongside the realities in front of us.
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Author: Bess Winston, Forbes Councils Member