A greener strategy: Broadening the horizon
The unique role of law firms puts us at the heart of the sustainability drive, says Maria Connolly
Open any newspaper and we are reminded of the urgency of the climate crisis. From years of record temperatures to biodiversity loss to a rise in extreme weather events – the news agenda reflects the impact of climate change and our ongoing impact on the environment.
But despite the bleak news reports, we are not powerless. As lawyers and businesses, there are clear and actionable steps that we can and, indeed, are taking to contribute to a more sustainable future.
Six years on from the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21), protecting our planet is rightly still front and centre. Governments, public and private sector organisations are committing to a future with net zero carbon emissions, keen to play their part in meeting the Paris Climate Accord’s target to limit the rise in global average temperatures to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
The UK government has committed, in law, to becoming a net zero carbon emissions country by 2050, with the Scottish government aiming to reach net zero by 2045.
Success in meeting any national target will depend on action in every area of our economy and the legal industry is in a unique position to be a real enabler of change. We can work with our partners and governments to help design regulations and policies that deliver the right outcomes.
We can embed sustainable thinking in the way we advise and support our clients. And, as a major UK industry and employer, we can continue to reduce our own impact on the environment as both businesses and individuals.
We are all focused on sustainability because it is the right thing to do, but committing to a more sustainable future also makes commercial sense at every level. Investors, employers and customers are making decisions about who to instruct or buy from based on environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors.
Failing to demonstrate a strategy and supporting actions is now a competitive disadvantage. Clients rightly demand stringent environmental standards from their partners and across their supply chains.
From the conversations I have, it is clear that everyone on this journey is at different levels of sophistication in different areas – and that is the same at TLT. But no matter the size or area of law that you are in – whether you are working within a business or you’re part of a private practice, there are a myriad ways to keep moving forward as an organisation and as employees; and as we exit the pandemic and look to accelerate change.
With that in mind, there are four areas requiring important consideration in delivering that change:
Greener organisations – Actions that organisations might look to take to become more sustainable and reduce their impact on the environment are wide-ranging and can feel insurmountable. But every sustainable change is a positive step towards reaching net zero.
Applying a sustainability lens across your organisation’s policies and supply chain is a low cost and manageable first step if spread across their various owners. Looking at your travel policies (what type of transport you encourage), benefit policies (can you support the purchase of ebikes?), and supply chains (checking that your suppliers have green policies) are all part of that process.
That ‘greening’ of policies and supply chains can then be supported with clear plans and accountability for ongoing governance and delivery to ensure that the objectives are met (or ideally exceeded) and momentum maintained.
That’s probably the hard part: policies need regular review and improvement in line with business growth, internal and external developments, and regulatory change to keep them delivering in this area.
Those developments whether technological, societal or policy led – are frequent in the sustainability space. Keeping on top of them can be a challenge, but the potential opportunity and benefits – commercially, to your employees and for the wider environment and economy – are worth some effort here.
Taping into expertise – Partnering with external advisors can help, not only in terms of keeping you up-to-date and compliant, but also with that drive to deliver the benefits that taking a more sustainable approach can bring. There are a number of specialists in this area and a growing body of insight and expertise to tap in to.
One of our recent steps on this journey is to partner with Carbon Intelligence, a leading sustainability advisory firm. That partnership is about accelerating our activities by bringing that firm’s scientific and data-led experience to our long-term sustainability strategy, in areas like the assessment of greenhouse gas emissions and how we establish and achieve ambitious carbon reduction targets.
In fact, our partnership with Carbon Intelligence will be a key driver for the firm on its path to becoming a net zero emissions organisation by 2025. It will be a challenging journey for the firm with the additional rigour helping us to better understand how we improve our current approach. The firm’s experience helping to set 43 per cent of approved 1.5°C science-based targets in the UK, and as a partner organisation to the Legal Sustainability Alliance, will also bring some invaluable outside insight and rigour to our efforts.
Shared learning – As a firm with a clean energy specialism, sustainability has been the core purpose for a number of our clients for many years. Through that work, we’ve been able to learn from some really visionary and innovative organisations at the cutting edge of the sustainability agenda: organisations that compete and grow every day in areas such as energy storage, electric vehicle charging, infrastructure, renewable energy development and also growth areas such as green finance.
Many of our corporate and public sector clients are similarly looking at their social and environmental impact.
We have always sought to bring some of that thinking and learning back into our own business practices where we can. By working in partnership with some of the organisations driving real change, we also look at how we can play that back out to working with organisations like the Chancery Lane Project, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the Legal Sustainability Alliance, Cornwall Insight, Regen and the Aldersgate Group.
There is a fantastic body of best practice available to both draw on and feed into. Such collaboration should be part of any organisation’s sustainability activity. Sharing learning and experience will help us all get to our end destination of net zero in the most effective and hopefully the quickest way.
People power – For any sustainability strategy or activity to really take root, it needs employee buy-in. People want the opportunity to contribute to both an organisation’s activities as well as forums to share their own experiences and ideas. Harnessing the energy of a wider community is an integral part of delivering behaviour change and results.
The legal sector employs close to half a million people in the UK and can influence change beyond the boundaries of each organisation; and draw on individual passions and experience from outside the work environment.
At TLT, we have an employee-led environment group driving initiatives across the business, like many other law firms. These forums enable employees to share their on-the-ground ideas and drive actions that can quickly deliver real results in the workplace and beyond. Through that group we have looked at a whole range of areas from how to reduce paper use and improving use of recycling facilities, to providing better support for sustainable forms of commuting.
People want to make a difference and employers can help to facilitate this so that a broad community can contribute and effect change.
Learning from the pandemic
Covid-19 and the ensuing lockdowns have brought significant challenges at a human, logistical and financial level. However, the disruption has also brought about a fundamental shift in how we work, proving that we can work in a more sustainable way.
Less commuting, less international travel, less consumption and less waste – I’m sure there is more that we could list.
The challenge as we start the gradual move back to a freer use of our offices, cities and towns is the maintenance of these positives from a sustainability perspective – accepting that collaborative and creative team working, as well as learning and development, are more difficult to deliver solely online.
Organisations are already looking at much greater freedom for people to choose how and where they work – we’ve proven it’s possible in many areas and the law is no different. Delivering this will mean looking at what space is needed and how organisations use that space to meet changing working patterns.
The rethink of how we use our office space will continue over the months and years that follow the pandemic. Delivering benefits to employees, with improved sustainability, will be an inevitable by-product.
But with the cards in the air around what the office of the future will look like – now is also the right time to think proactively about how we make our offices more sustainable. That means again – putting a sustainability lens on everything you look to change. Whether that’s an office refit, an office move or what products you now order in, from new technology to catering supplies and from energy sources through to supporting sustainable commuting options.
This is a moment in time to make changes before habits, processes and approaches again become embedded.
Clients, suppliers and employees will look to those who have a clear plan and commitment to a sustainable future. For the legal sector more broadly, future talent will undoubtedly gravitate to those organisations who are striving to make a change, as well as empowering their people to do the same.
It’s time to make sustainability a clearly articulated part of your strategy and a primary consideration in how you engage with colleagues, your wider networks and the broader working environment of the future.
Maria Connolly is a partner and Executive Board member responsible for sustainability at TLT tltsolicitors.com