Sustainability is the new digital

As the digital revolution defined the last 30 years, the climate crisis will define business for the next 30.

The climate crisis news is as bad as it gets. We call August the “silly season”, for its lack of major news stories. Not this August. We’re yet to fully escape the Covid-19 pandemic, but the newly released IPCC report on climate change is anything but silly. The phrase that has stuck is “code red for humanity”.

Think we’re going back to normal, after the pandemic? No fear. We’re rolling straight from one crisis to the next. Climate change is no longer a problem for the future. It’s a problem we’re living in now. It’s everyone’s problem. It’s your problem. 

And it’s every company’s problem, too. 

Post-digital, pre-sustainability

And that’s why sustainability is the new digital. It will define how we think about business — and life — for the next 30 years, just as digital has dominated the last three decades. The climate and our impact on it will be a bigger debate than the impact of digital technology on our society because it is an existential one. 

That’s the big similarity. There are others, and we’ll explore them later on. But there’s one big difference — the digital revolution was all carrot and no stick at first: it was an added boon to businesses and people, not something they had to do to survive. The stick only came later, when it became obvious that being left behind in the revolution meant becoming uncompetitive. 

The Sustainability Stick

For the climate crisis, we’re starting with the stick: even if we act, this planet will change in ways that will take centuries to undo, and in a way that is inimical to human life. As the IPCC puts it:

However, strong and sustained reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases would limit climate change. While benefits for air quality would come quickly, it could take 20-30 years to see global temperatures stabilise, according to the IPCC Working Group I report, Climate Change 2021: the Physical Science Basis, approved on Friday by 195 member governments of the IPCC, through a virtual approval session that was held over two weeks starting on July 26.

That’s the stick. And sticks don’t come much bigger than that. Not all of us will survive to see those 30 years out. But most of us have loved ones who will. And do we really want our final years to be spent in a world riven with disasters, increasing refugee crises, and spiralling insecurity?

I’d hate to look back on 2020 as the good times, before it all went to hell…

The Sustainability Carrot

Enough of the stick. What’s the carrot? 

As the reality of the climate crisis hits more and more people, just as it has this summer, we’ll have to make a whole set of different choices as to how we spend our money. Sure, that applies to consumer spend, but it also applies to business.

The digital revolution started in business, with the advent of computers in the workplace, and then looped out to consumers, with ever-more affordable digital devices, before finally coming back to businesses, as their entire consumer base digitalised.

The first wave of true sustainability has to come from both business and government. That’s where the big levers of change are — and some businesses have already been taking marketing advantage of it. Apple, always happy to lead the way on marketing, has been telling a net-zero story for its entire supply chain for over a year, and for its operations for a few years before that. We’re still in the window where sustainability is a marketing advantage — just. But it won’t last. 

The tax and law agenda

Governments will start demanding serious climate pledges from its suppliers — one of the major levers of power they have. They’ll also start using regulation and taxation to reshape our economies. As Helen Lewis put it in The Atlantic:

Individual changes are no substitute for political action. Through subsidies and taxes, governments need to make the greenest option also the easiest one to take.

The big companies, like Apple, that are leading the way on the climate crisis, are already making those demands of those in their supply chain.

At the same time, consumer demand is beginning to ramp up. As the climate crisis starts to hit home to people, through fire, flood or drought, they’ll push for changes in the products they buy, in the goods they consume. 

We need to start telling stories about the low-carbon future — and what a good place it could be. It’s easier to get people to run towards something positive in the short term, than away from something negative in the medium term. We reacted quickly to Covid-19 because we could see people dying around us. Some of us are yet to directly experience the crippling heat, the floods, and the wildfires. But those people can still be motivated by the opportunity to have something better.

Innovating our way out

And we have to be better. We’ll need technology innovation to both reduce carbon output and capture the carbon already in the atmosphere. Forget greenwashing — now is the moment for the true innovators to find tech and business solutions that address the carbon crisis.

Degrowth, as attractive as it might seem to those of us in the west who live in (relative) luxury, is unlikely to be compelling to many:

Yet, there is neither a mass constituency for this project, nor any reason to believe that there will be any time soon. Freeze the status-quo economy in amber, and you’ll condemn nearly half of humanity to permanent poverty. Divide existing GDP into perfectly even slices, and every person on the planet will live on about $5,500 a year.

And so, we’ll have to rely on technology to get us out of this mess, just as it got us into it.

Telling better sustainability stories

Those of us who bring that news to the consumer and the end user need to start telling those stories of a low-carbon world, be we journalists or marketeers. And that’s where sustainability really is the new digital. We know how to tell exciting stories about technology. We’ve been doing it for two decades. 

On the same day that the IPCC’s report came out, so did this story, about zero-carbon aviation:

The Canadian firm Carbon Engineering and LanzaTech UK have teamed up to make this dream reality. Backed by British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, and some government funding, in March they will publish a feasibility plan outlining how they will produce 100 million litres of zero-emission jet fuel each year by the end of the 2020s.

Scientists, corporates, and government working together to reshape an industry that’s one of the biggest sources of carbon emissions. More like this, please. Maybe by 2030, we’ll be able to fly to Hamburg for NEXT and not feel guilty about it…

Like digital, sustainability is a competitive advantage

Yes, there’s altruism in this. Of course. But there’s also healthy self-interest, both at an individual and a corporate level. The companies that make net-zero fuel will win big. So will the aviation companies that supported them. 

And so, for those who can move fast, and innovate in product and services in a way that addresses the world’s carbon problem, rather than exacerbates it, there’s a growing market to take advantage of. Some companies can always ride the wave of a fundamental shift in how we do business like this. 

If the planet — its people and its governments — are serious about net-zero, that means that any business better have a great story to tell about how it’s helping address this crisis, rather than worsening it.

In the end, it’s just good business. As we’ve learnt over the past 18 months, global crises disrupt supply chains. Business gets harder, costs go up. 

All businesses need to become resilient, sustainable businesses — and fast. All businesses need people to sell to. And if this crisis isn’t addressed, that addressable market — those people — are going to be in short supply.

Photo by Karsten Würth on Unsplash