Marion Verles, CEO Gold Standard Foundation

At this years Carbon Management Institute Conference 2017, International Gold Standard CEO Marion Verles outlined how sustainable development can be a powerful lever to unlock more ambitious climate actions by corporate entities.

In her keynote address, Marion outlined how we can bring people together around the difficult conversations about climate change and emissions management - by drawing a clear link to things they care about - like jobs, health, access to energy, water, food, biodiversity and basic issue of human well-being.

She also outlined how companies investing in significant climate mitigation programs to offset emissions can deliver a stronger story to their stakeholders if their investment also has high social benefits.

But she stressed the need to tell those stories in a way people want to hear. Oftentimes companies detail their commitment to carbon management, without making the causal link between the reduction of emissions, a healthy planet and a healthy global community; and this is a missed business opportunity of the highest order.

Verles spoke passionately, but rather than speaking about carbon management specifically, she spoke about sustainable development, equity, climate change and how these relate to corporate climate strategies. She spoke about building strong brand trust and the business case for sustainability, and, most starkly, about the ‘care factor’.

In her own words.

“… how do we make people care about the climate? We make people care about the climate by drawing a clear link between what they care about – jobs, health, energy, water and food security, biodiversity… and climate change. We make people care about the climate by telling them: ‘everything you care about is not going to happen unless we solve the climate crisis’.”

From Verles’ perspective these social values are universal. All over the world, when people are asked what they care about - jobs, health, food and energy security, safety for family and education are key. So if this is the reassurance that communities are wanting, why then are corporations trying to ‘sell’ stories about corporate social responsibility and emissions management?

In speaking to the corporate audience, Verles stressed that people care about inclusive, sustainable growth that brings benefits to their generation and the generations to come, and her message was clear. A well-designed, socially responsible story that uses sustainable development as a lever can unlock the marketing potential of a corporate climate strategy.

According to Verles, as a concept, people don’t necessarily ‘care’ about climate change. It’s an abstract idea that people find difficult to relate to their personal situation – something removed from their everyday experience. So the challenge for corporate entities is that of communicating their climate ambitious in a compelling way to their customers. Using their climate strategy to build trust and customer relationships.

From this perspective she outlined that companies may well be selling their climate strategies short if they are solely focused on carbon impacts and mitigation.

“The truth is, communicating the sustainable development impacts of your climate strategy creates a virtuous circle. It helps you get more traction with your stakeholders by telling them about things they actually care about.”

As an analogy, she likened telling customers only about carbon management and emissions reduction to telling your friends that you went to Paris, and then proceeding to only describe the airport – entirely missing the parts of the story that would charm and influence your listeners. 

She advocated telling a story that showed the broader influence of a climate strategy. For companies who invest in Gold Standard projects, like the Yarra Yarra Biodiversity Corridor, this might be communicating new industries created in vulnerable farming communities, or the biodiversity values of the project. If it were an international project in a developing country the human stories around jobs creation, energy, water or sanitation benefits to marginalized communities might be the more powerful.

But Verles cautioned that, as important as storytelling might be to create brand trust, it will not fully influence a customer to invest in a project or company unless it actually makes sound business sense, so communicating the business case of investing in high impact, low carbon interventions is key to ‘selling’ a company’s carbon management message.

Not so long ago sustainable development was considered secondary to the real work of nation building. Increasingly however it is being recognized in global markets as not an optional consideration, but an essential one – a mainstream concept, fast gathering momentum.

Verles recounted a conversation with her predecessor, Michael Schlup, the first CEO of the Gold Standard, who told her: 

“when we started back in 2003, people told me: it’s nice but this is a side game’. 14 years later, Gold Standard’s approach to sustainable development has been copied time and again.”

This is borne out by the increasing number of leading corporations willing to pay premiums for high impact offsets that are leading the way in the quantification and certification of climate and sustainable development impacts through the Gold Standard. From Verles’ perspective this is as a result, in the main, of the business case for sustainable environmental management.

“It’s all about risk management and future proofing your business. Every single business is going to be impacted by climate change, most businesses already are. You’re not going to manage the transition by keeping a narrow focus on carbon emissions. This goes beyond carbon. This is about transitioning your business from where it is today to one that is compatible with a 1.5 degree world and the 2030 agenda for sustainable development.”

Investing in high impact climate actions can help corporates be recognized and trusted by their stakeholders and to ensure customer and employee retention.

It can inspire investor confidence. Each year, more investors are looking for information from companies on what they are doing to mitigate climate risks, not just to protect against issues like stranded assets but also from exposure to carbon tax or other compliance obligations that are evolving. Analyst tools like ESG ratings are also accelerating around the world, which moves beyond carbon mitigation into assessing what companies are doing to contribute to society’s shared goals.

Verles takeaways from the conference were these:

That the story of sustainable development is a powerful lever to unlock climate ambitions, but that this must be coupled with making climate action meaningful and motivational for stakeholders. 

That this marks a shift from stories of obligation to inspiration; from telling a customer that they have a responsibility, to showing a customer that by investing in your company, they can change the world.

This turns an impost into something motivational and desirable that can build brand power.

But that beyond brand awareness and trust, or even mitigating shareholder risk, a company investing in carbon mitigation is helping the global community achieve the world we want; the world we need. While this might sound trite, it’s proven that more stable, inclusive societies are better for business.

Verles left delegates with a clear message to consider carefully their climate strategies and their motivations with the view to the end game not being the business case alone; but a driver for real stewardship, social change, climate security and sustainable development for all.