Comment: Business must support climate action, not rally against it

Companies must take a role of leadership and ask themselves, what have we done to drive or influence others to become more sustainable?

‘Unlike a fibre broadband network roll out, there are few precedents and no handbook for the scale of the challenge we all face in becoming more sustainable, particularly in addressing climate change.’ Picture: Getty

I’m fortunate to work as chief executive with Siro a company rolling out a 100 per cent fibre broadband network across Ireland. While we were the first company in Ireland to do so and there have been many challenges along the way, we did have comparable international examples and Irish expertise, including from our parent companies ESB and Vodafone, to draw from. This has helped us navigate our way and roll out a broadband network accelerating digital transformation.

Sustainability is also something which requires all of us – individuals, communities and businesses – to change how we live. Unlike a fibre broadband network roll out, there are few precedents and no handbook for the scale of the challenge we all face in becoming more sustainable, particularly in addressing climate change.

Even with Covid-19, devastating though its impacts have been, mankind had some experience of deadly plagues and infectious disease outbreaks throughout the centuries which provided some guidance.

Not so with climate change.

Trying to develop sustainability strategies, particularly for smaller businesses, can be daunting. Where to start, what to do, how to measure impact and how to be sure that what you do creates meaningful impact are all huge obstacles to overcome. Addressing them requires patience, ingenuity and a willingness to embrace trial and error. It can be an uncomfortable place for a chief executive or business.

Business, much like politics, can often be dictated by the short term – targets, margins, annual results and return on investment. It’s always been a harder task, requiring a bigger leap of faith, to ask business leaders to take actions now which may not reap benefits for years to come.

Yet, that is what is required of business leaders today if we are to collectively affect a change in our behaviours and embed sustainable practices in everything we do. Many businesses have responded; more must do so. The window for action closes by the day.

In the coming weeks the government will publish its Climate Change Implementation Plan. Business must support it, not rally against it.

It’s not enough any more to see this as someone else’s problem – governments, corporations, interest groups, others. As individuals or as leaders within our community or businesses we must all question, what have I done to drive or influence others to become more sustainable? Business leaders of companies big and small must use their corporate muscle to this end.

Last week Siro launched its sustainability strategy. It notes our work to date and sets out objectives for the future. I am pleased that it is broader than sustainability viewed only through the prism of environmental issues. Instead, it promotes a wide range of areas including gender equality, diversity and inclusivity, community outreach and corporate governance, in addition to environmental commitments.

Notable elements include switching our company fleet to electric vehicles; piloting solar panels and biodiversity projects at our PoP cabins (broadband connection infrastructure); working with voluntary organisations to develop paths to work for excluded and marginalised groups; a leadership team which is 67 per cent female (significant in the traditionally male dominated telecoms industry) and becoming a signatory of the UN Global Compact which commits businesses to meet universal global standards on sustainability – only one of 14 Irish companies to do so.

It’s a project we have been working on since 2018. We started small; yet have achieved much; and with more to do. What’s most significant for us is that we have succeeded in embedding a sustainability-first culture across Siro – thinking, first, how to do things more sustainably, rather than it being an afterthought.

Talking about Siro’s sustainability journey is intended to encourage other SMEs who want to become more sustainable but might feel daunted by it.

Key things Siro have learnt on the way are that small steps can become giant leaps. Fear of what you do not being enough, can’t be a reason for doing nothing.

Humanity is kind. People and organisations always want to help those with good intentions, meaning that there is always someone to give a lending hand. There are many organisations, State and voluntary, willing to support a business on their sustainability journey. None who want you to fail. Your colleagues are also a great untapped resource with many wanting to lead the change.

Even if some aspects don’t work at first, focus on your original intention of what you wanted to achieve and go again. This latter point leads us to the tetchy issue of ‘greenwashing’.

It’s simply wrong if businesses misrepresent the work they are undertaking on sustainability. It’s precisely why a more standardised and universal measure or accounting standard of sustainability is badly needed versus the current myriad of differing approaches. Yet, equally, fear of being accused of greenwashing can have the detrimental effect of actively dissuading businesses from taking any action.

In 2020 the world listened when the World Health Organisation’s Dr Mike Ryan warned on Covid-19 that “speed trumped perfection”. The same could be applied to sustainability in the face of accelerating climate change. Getting all businesses to accept their responsibility to act sustainably and committed to mitigating their organisation’s impact on climate change is an important first step to achieving more meaningful transformation.

John Keaney is chief executive of Siro, which is rolling out a 100 per cent Gigabit Fibre Network across Ireland