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Is your communication on climate action up to scratch?
26 April 2023

Is your communication on climate action up to scratch?

6 minute read
Corporate climate action Net zero
Nadia Kähkonen
Nadia Kähkönen Deputy Director, Global Comms
Kata Bors Head of Client Communications

Today, corporate climate action claims can become reputational threats, rather than strategic positioning opportunities, unless they are carefully planned and communicated.

Companies are tripping over each other to prove their climate ambition to an increasingly more conscious consumer-base – but also to a growing cohort of investors who want to know whether their investees can thrive in a warming world.

Countries are defining their national climate action targets and enshrining them in law and regulation. Businesses operating in multiple countries need to understand and quantify the very real impacts of this evolution, and the long-term effects of the Paris Agreement.

All of this means that companies must become more savvy about communicating their corporate climate action and making climate-related claims that resonate with and convince stakeholders as well as, most importantly, showing their progress as transparently as possible.

Words are free – it's how you use them that may cost you

Our team believes that there are four key principles for companies to follow when pursuing best-in-class communications around climate claims to avoid accusations of greenwashing.

1. Transparency

Avoid vagueness at all costs – i.e. don't commit to a claim without also communicating a clear definition of it. Credible climate action claims require transparency about your activities and require you to show how those activities are part of a holistic, long-term climate strategy. Transparency about what goes behind a claim puts concrete plans under public scrutiny, and pushes your corporate sustainability teams to pursue the best possible solutions for reducing and balancing your organisation's overall emissions.

2. Accountability

Transparent communication, disclosure, and honest updates on your progress (both the good and the not-so-good) are essential to upholding the integrity and accountability of any corporate climate action and related claims.

3. Impact

Show, don't tell. What real actions are you taking to substantiate your claim? Your audience needs to be convinced that you really are walking the walk. Sound operational evidence and verified impact data is an important way to provide that assurance. Dial up the stats that reflect your organisation's sustainability priorities and that best resonate with your target audience.

4. Authenticity

Always align your communication strategy with your long-term sustainability strategy and your company's wider growth strategy. To hedge against changing terminology around corporate climate action claims, South Pole also encourages businesses to explore claims that are authentic to your brand, and that reflect your full suite of ambitious climate activities to reduce your carbon footprint.

Don't forget - Vulnerability

Being open about your dilemmas and showing vulnerability is a new must-have in the climate communications toolkit. Addressing climate change takes time and collective effort, and displaying your challenges or setbacks not only builds trust, through elevated transparency and authenticity, but can also lead to finding solutions to your dilemmas as a result of crowdsourcing ideas.

Governments and market authorities are watching

Governments are increasingly receptive to civil society's demands for greater clarity around how organisations communicate climate action – particularly if such communication has the potential to mislead consumers and investors about the actions that organisations are taking (or not taking) to address their carbon footprint. It comes as no surprise that this trend has resulted in an increasing number of litigation cases. According to the UN's 'Global Climate Litigation Report' in 2020, the number of such cases doubled in the five years prior. While fossil fuel companies remain a primary target for litigation cases in 2022, climate litigants are now expanding their spectrum more broadly: corporations from the food and agriculture, plastics and packaging, transportation and financial sectors are among the top five most-targeted players.

Country-specific regulation is also emerging. The Australian Government, for instance, has put out clear guidelines on companies' environmental claims, as have the consumer watchdogs in the Netherlands and the UK. The EU has also just published its draft bill on green claims, and the French government has even passed legislation with strict requirements on when companies can, for example, claim 'carbon neutrality'.

More countries are likely to follow suit, mandating that companies transparently report how their climate action claims reflect emission reductions within and beyond their operations and value chains. South Pole welcomes any initiative that fosters transparency in how companies take and talk about climate action. Consumers need clear language and transparent communication on the brands they support – without exaggerated or misleading claims – to best inform their choices. Companies who wish to share their progress also need clear guidance on climate claims in order to avoid greenwashing.

Leaders are going green, then going dark – “green-hushing" is on the rise

Among sustainability-minded organisations, the trajectory for net zero is encouraging: within our 2022 research analysing climate commitments of 1,200 corporate leaders across 12 countries, setting a net zero goal, science-based reductions milestones (SBTs), and a clear target date have become standard practice across all industries.

Nearly two-thirds of organisations are committing to rapid action by 2030 at the latest, and 13% of surveyed organisations have aggressive plans to meet net zero targets by or before 2024.

In addition to our reassuring findings on companies who are ramping up their climate action, an alarming trend emerged from our research: despite businesses increasingly backing up their targets with science-based emission reductions milestones, nearly a quarter (23%) decided not to publicise their milestones beyond what is mandated. This is a concerning trend, as less public-facing communication makes targets harder to scrutinise and could lead to missed opportunities for sectors to work together to decarbonise.

“Evidence shows that sustainability-minded businesses are increasingly backing up their targets with science-based emission reductions milestones, which is absolutely the right approach. But if a quarter today aren't coming forwards with details on what makes their target credible, could corporate green-hushing be spreading? The speed at which we are overshooting our planetary boundaries is mindblowing. More than ever we need the companies making progress on sustainability to inspire their peers to make a start. This is impossible if progress is happening in silence," says Renat Heuberger, CEO of South Pole.

You must build a foundation for claims through measurable, time-bound climate action

Companies need to build a robust foundation to make bold claims through ambitious, measurable, and time-bound climate action. Claims must be built on a holistic climate strategy that clearly shows what your company is doing to meaningfully reduce its carbon footprint while helping to scale carbon finance, which is critical to supporting global climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts in parallel. It is important to note that your organisation's efforts to decarbonise its own emissions will draw the most scrutiny from investors, consumers, and civil society – and even employees. At the same time, beyond value chain mitigation is essential. According to the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), “companies must scale up investment and go beyond their science-based targets by channelling additional climate finance towards mitigation activities outside of their value chains now to contribute towards reaching societal net-zero."

Fotrunately, we now have clearer definitions for what 'outstanding' looks like, especially for the private sector.

For the ambitious target of corporate net zero emissions, for example, the SBTi has published a clear standard against which it can (and will) evaluate businesses' net zero commitments and plans.

This is why embarking on a carefully planned, science-based climate journey today is so important. A credible climate journey involves several stages: it starts with understanding your company's impact on the planet – so, measuring the material emissions associated with your company and strategising how to minimise them – and ends with reducing, compensating and neutralising your footprint as you work towards net zero.

Your work towards Net Zero


Find out how big your carbon footprint really is.

Set targets & create a roadmap

Develop your sustainability strategies and targets.

Reduce Footprint

Identify the most impactful short- and long-term interventions for reducing your carbon footprint in order to meet your target.

Finance global climate action

​Ideally within your sector: for the emissions that you simply cannot address in the here and now.

Communicate and lead

By publicly disclosing points 1 to 4, you are matching your words with your deeds.


Find out how big your carbon footprint really is – from facilities, energy consumption, products, services, investment portfolio – and understand your possible climate change risks.

Set targets & create a roadmap

Develop your sustainability strategies and targets. Find out what your short- and long-term emission reduction targets would look like when aligned with the latest climate science. If you are pursuing science-based emission reduction targets (SBTs) to reach net zero, the SBTi has clear requirements on what these targets should look like, both in the short and long term. The Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change also has created a framework on how financial institutions should allocate their portfolio to meet Paris Agreement targets.

Reduce footprint

Identify the most impactful short- and long-term interventions for reducing your carbon footprint in order to meet your target. Ideally, you should plan a trajectory for reducing emissions across your entire value chain and across all of your direct and indirect emission (scopes 1-3). You should set a net zero emissions target year based on science, with interim milestones on how to get there, all consistent with a 1.5ºC climate mitigation pathway.

Finance climate action

Ideally within your sector: for the emissions that you simply cannot address in the here and now, you must compensate for your impact on the atmosphere by financing emission reductions elsewhere. You can support faster climate action beyond your own value chain and help close the global emissions gap by financing projects and activities that have a measurable, verifiable impact on reducing, avoiding or even removing emissions. True leaders will focus on projects that contribute to driving emissions down within their own sector, using their ambition to pull up those who are less ambitious or who are just starting out. 'Crowdsourcing' finance for expensive solutions within your sector can bring down their costs, so that you and your peers can eventually use these solutions to reduce your own footprint.

Communicate & lead

By publicly disclosing points 1 to 4, you are matching your words with your deeds, safeguarding your reputation, and building the foundations for authentic brand activation campaigns or investor reporting that resonate with your key stakeholders. This is your opportunity to engage with your clients, suppliers, and investors to bring them with you on your climate journey.

The era of claiming ambition without clear disclosure is no longer possible – especially at a time when actions and words need to match the true scope and scale of our climate challenge. And when it comes to authentic and credible communications around climate claims, it will be about ultimate transparency, accountability, and impact: you must ensure that what you say is what you can actually achieve, be it around reaching net zero emissions or any other bold climate action targets.

From developing environmental claims to designing stakeholder engagement strategies and storytelling campaigns, South Pole's communication experts provide bespoke and strategic communications support so you can make sure your climate success communication is compelling and up to scratch.

From ambition to action, your 5 step climate journey starts here
From ambition to action, your 5 step climate journey starts here

Talk to us about getting started on your climate journey.

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