Sustainability – From Ambition to Impact

Sustainability has become a very large conference topic over the past 5 years, and it continues to gain prominence. Today there are more conferences on the subject than ever before, and the conversation is becoming a significant part of more general conferences as well.

Sustainability events like Climate Week in New York, GreenBiz Verge and the UN Climate Change Conference have been taking place for years.  This year major producers like Techonomy, The Economist, and MIT’s Technology Review have added their own perspective to the global conversation.

Sustainability Growth

In 2022, top tier conference producers significantly increased their focus on sustainability.  For example, GreenBiz produced 6 different green events this year. Bloomberg ran 2 versions of its “Green” conference, 3 instances of its “Sustainable Business Summit” and a new event called “Climate Resilience” in January. The Economist created 5 events related to sustainability this year.  Fortune and The Wall Street Journal each ran their own series of sustainable business events this year as well.

As more conferences are produced, more voices –  from corporations, academics, and government are joining the discussion. Companies from virtually every industry are participating, and perspectives from the CEO down to subject matter experts are being shared.

The Conversation Shift

And the sustainability conversation itself is changing.  Just a few years back, conferences were focused on defining the problem and establishing long term goals.  As a result, many large corporations published hefty 10- and 20-year vision and commitment statements which often outlined their goals for achieving net zero emissions and other audacious targets.  This year there was a definite shift from longer term goal setting to shorter term implementation achievements.    The conversation time frame shifted from 2030 and 2040 to this year and next.  What prototypes and pilot programs are seeing the light of day right now?  What innovations moving to the field? What have we learned this year?

At Climate Week in September, one of our clients reiterated the observation that this year’s discussions were much more weighted toward near term implementation plans and actions rather than announcing broad goals and visions.  This action orientation is a natural evolution of the discussion.  It means that the issue is being widely accepted and real plans are being executed.

It is interesting to compare descriptions of some of the most prominent sustainability conferences in 2022 to the descriptions of the same conferences in 2019 to illustrate this change in focus.

For example, the overview of the Fortune Global Sustainability Forum in 2022 read:

“How to Reach Net-Zero: Transitioning from Ambition to Action

Nearly a year on from the pivotal COP26 summit in Glasgow, the ever-present issue of climate change has only grown more untenable. The private sector is poised to answer the call that’s become impossible to ignore and seize the opportunity to collaborate across industries in the fight to save the planet.”

Compare that to a description of the first year of the same conference in 2019:

“The inaugural FORTUNE Global Sustainability Forum was held September 4-6, 2019.  The theme was Green Grows Up: Forging A New Environmental Consensus.”

The 2019 Forum aimed at building consensus while the 2022 Forum highlighted calls to action.

At Climate Week this year, promotional materials stated the event is “all about getting it done”.  While in 2019, the headline highlighted moving “from climate change to climate crisis” where the focus was on a 10-year horizon, marked by statements like “…to limit the rise in global average temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, thereby avoiding the worst of these consequences, greenhouse gas emissions must be halved by 2030…”

The same holds true at the 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in November.  The conference “will build on the outcomes of COP26 to deliver action on an array of issues critical to tackling the climate emergency – from urgently reducing greenhouse gas emissions, building resilience, and adapting to the inevitable impacts of climate change, to delivering on the commitments to finance climate action in developing countries. “

The Conference Ecosystem

Generally, as broad new topics like AI, DEI and The Future of Work become mainstream discussion points, specialized conferences dedicated to these subjects become a catalyst to drive those discussions and resulting actions forward.  As these new topics become more broadly understood, the need for specialized conferences often decreases and these discussions start to become topics of more general-purpose conferences.

The Sustainability Conference Lifecycle

Regarding sustainability, we’ve seen a broad shift in the past year from planning and goal setting to urgency and action.  This is the natural cycle of a well-functioning conference ecosystem. Soon, there may no longer be a need for dedicated sustainability conferences at all.  We expect that sustainability is going to be talked about more in the perspective of a company’s broader ESG goals –  looked at as a whole set of how companies are positively contributing to society. As the topic becomes well understood and we move to pure implementation, these conversations will become fully subsumed into other, more general conferences about business, technology, national politics, and international affairs.