By 2050, environmentalists dream of net zero, or a time when the amount of greenhouse gas produced balances the amount removed from the atmosphere. This is a critical goal to avert the most devastating effects of climate change — and a major focus of the upcoming COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow.
But net zero is only achievable if companies get on board with building sustainable solutions. One way to do this is through innovation, or when businesses introduce new workflows, processes, services and products towards a goal — such as improving their bottom line or making their business greener.
“What we need to achieve sustainability is innovation,” says Tsvetina Chankova, director at innovation consultancy Pollen8. The company hosts a net zero innovation programme, designed to engage employees and help companies hit their sustainability targets.
Companies and governments around the world have acknowledged the urgency to act, with 59 countries having communicated net zero emissions targets. But Chankova says the real issue is getting businesses to take the next practical steps.
From identifying impact to mobilising staff, here are the biggest challenges companies moving towards net zero face and how to overcome them.
1. Turning abstract terms into practical steps
For Chankova, “the first major block is the unknown” because phrases like net zero are still new concepts for most employees.
"The term 'net zero' wasn't widely used until a few years ago, and to many people, it's still very abstract," she says. "The challenge here is, how do we make it tangible and practical to people?"
Professor Martin Charter, director for the centre for sustainable design at the University for the Creative Arts, agrees terminology can be confusing — for employees, investors and consumers.
The term 'net zero' wasn't widely used until a few years ago, and to many people it's still very abstract. The challenge here is, how do we make it tangible and practical to people?
“One of the concerns I have at the moment is you’re starting to see a number of companies saying yeah, we’re net zero carbon,” he says. “But what does that actually mean? What methodology have you used? It’s a complex issue, particularly if you’re a large player with complex energy use [and] complex supply networks that incorporate transportation.”
One way to translate this complexity into something clear and practical, that everyone at every level of an organisation can work with, is by creating a sustainable innovation portfolio, says Chankova. This is a way companies can manage their innovation strategy in the same way one would manage another form of investment — risks and rewards of ideas are evaluated and compared.
“By structuring all your sustainability initiatives in a portfolio, you can communicate a clear pipeline of innovations, show which of those are priorities and how they will impact the overall agenda,” she says. “It’s a simple way to make it concrete for everyone.”
2. Identify where your business can make the most impact
As Charter says, sustainable innovation is a complex issue.
“For some businesses, one net zero strategy might be focused on improving energy use in the building. For another, it’s all about working with partners to target supply chain improvements,” she says. “It’s about finding the right focus of your efforts.”
Charter says a good practice is for companies to incorporate sustainability into the DNA of the business from the beginning.
“It’s much easier to integrate sustainability into your innovation process organisationally, product and process if you’re starting from scratch,” he says. “Have that in your mission statement, think about how you follow through in a serious manner.”
It’s much easier to integrate sustainability into your innovation process organisationally, product and process if you’re starting from scratch.
While corporates don't have the luxury of starting from the beginning, programmes like Pollen8's Net Zero innovation programme help successful organisations, like Vodafone and the British Red Cross, reinvent themselves — working with them to improve strategy, work processes and internal collaboration.
3. From top to bottom: Getting every team on the same page
Many innovations required for moving towards net zero will be happening across different areas of the business, and need cross-team collaboration. But Chankova says another roadblock businesses looking to innovate often come up against is getting all their employees on the same page.
"In many organisations, the net zero agenda feels stuck at the top, with a commitment from leadership but then a lack of transparency and accountability for the rest of the employees," she says.
To avoid this, Chankova says companies need to work out what it means for them and communicate it clearly throughout the business.
“This is where employees are really key — engaging everyone, making sure they know what’s happening,” she says. “They have ownership over the agenda too and can contribute to and align with the broader net zero vision. As the transformation required is so fundamental to the business, responsibility also needs to be shared across everyone.”
In many organisations, the net zero agenda feels stuck at the top, with a commitment from leadership but then a lack of transparency and accountability for the rest of the employees.
This can be done through an employee education programme, or an innovation challenge focused on surfacing net zero solutions from across the business. For example, Deloitte recently launched a programme in sustainability training for all 330k employees, in partnership with World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
Charter says companies can also tackle different areas of the business separately, isolating which areas need more education and creating a personalised strategy for each.
“I would first identify which of your business units or divisions have the most awareness [of the companies’ net zero goals],” he says. “You should develop a strategy taking account of those different levels of awareness and understanding.”
Chankova adds that internal communications are critical in ensuring transparency: “Comms are something definitely to get right and I think many organisations have this as a barrier,” she says.
4. Connecting efforts to the bigger picture
Lastly, Chankova says companies need to join their innovation efforts together so teams can learn from one another.
“We could have different efforts in different teams and no one is looking at the bigger picture and connecting those efforts,” she says. “So something that can be best practised in one team remains locked in this team and no one understands it.”
She adds it’s also important to think about the wider implications of climate change, and how your company could be contributing to — or alleviating — the problem in other ways besides carbon neutrality.
“Innovation needs to happen everywhere to solve problems that are at an even greater scale,” she says. “We’re all needed for the greater good right now.”
Pollen8’s Net Zero innovation programme is designed to help you engage your employees and surface innovative solutions that move the needle on your sustainability agenda. Discover more here.