Leadership Lessons with David Willans, Sustainability Director at Bladonmore

Why curiosity is key, the power of “doublethink” when it comes to sustainability, and communicating through technical complexities. We recently spoke with David Willans, Sustainability Director at Bladonmore about how he sees the sustainability sector evolving.

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Can you tell me a bit about your background, and what drove you to pursue a career in both comms and sustainability?

I’ve always been interested in business as the engine of progress in society, so I studied economics at Leeds Uni back in the early ‘00’s. But I’ve also long thought how can business do more than just make money for its owners? How can it make the world better? I discovered CSR and got a job with Business in the Community in Yorkshire doing new programme development.

A year or two in, I heard about this thing called ‘sustainable development’it with Forum for the Future. The course was a real ‘red pill vs blue pill’ moment, like in the Matrix. This is the reality – do you want to face up to it? And I did. For me, when you’re educated on the state of the world, turning a blind eye isn’t an option. Through the Masters course I started working at Futerra, one of the world’s first specialist sustainability communications agencies. And that’s how I got into comms.

What personal attributes do you think have helped you succeed? 

I’m curious and love ideas. Ultimately, sustainability is a field of concepts, and communication is completely concept related: we use words to communicate concepts between each other to then create certain outcomes in the world. One thing I find endlessly fascinating is how, by just changing the way something is communicated or presented, you change can change the reality of it, you can have a real-world impact.

What do you think are the key qualities needed from leaders in sustainability in 2024 and beyond?

Mainly the ability to “doublethink” (from George Orwell in 1984). You need to hold the two opposing ideas of, to be frank, the terrifying reality we’re facing with climate change, and the optimism that we will and are tackling it before it gets catastrophic.  

What are the key challenges you face in your role as a leader in sustainability comms?

There are two big ones. Firstly, unlocking the motivation to do more. Change is hard and costly. Unfortunately, the data on climate, nature and inequality show we’re not going fast enough. It’s easier for us humans to live with cognitive dissonance than make real changes. In business, it’s easier to stay in the pack than to move ahead. How you get people to do more is a real challenge.

The other practical challenge is how to communicate effectively when the specifics are so technical – circularity, real emission reductions etc – but the broader, more generic statements are so bland and overused. This makes sustainability sound broad, blunt, and non-urgent, rather than sharp, precise and impactful. There are ways around this, but for clients who aren’t fully confident in their knowledge and their business’ sustainability performance, the safety of the generic communications is more valuable, unfortunately, than effective communications.

How do you see the field evolving over the next 5-10 years?

On the sustainability front, it’s already developing fast and will only get faster. Real world pressures from climate change and society’s response to them will bite hard in the years to come. So, sustainability will be more evident in core business strategies and budgets.

The gap between the small number of companies who have been at this for years (Nestle, Unilever, Nike, Ford, Walmart etc) and those just starting, will grow because of the huge effort required to measure, manage, and disclose tens of thousands of non-financial data points. This could create a real crunch as climate change bites, because many of those just starting are comparatively smaller companies further down in supply chains. These companies may be so overwhelmed by reporting, they aren’t able to get ahead of what’s coming because of climate change and make necessary investments and adjustments. There could be even more disruption to global trade as a result. Or maybe we’ll see a lot more supplier collaboration, as the global behemoths that have been at sustainability for a while do have the foresight to predict climate adaptation needs and work with their suppliers to make the necessary changes happen.

Legal cases against companies will increase, as will investor activism. This will be fuelled by the tsunami of data from disclosure requirements, led by the EU’s CSRD, but also in Asia, the Middle East, California (maybe the US more broadly with the SEC but until this year’s elections, who knows), all enabled by AI.

As communicators, we need to have a much sharper understanding of how sustainability factors impact their business and be able to tell that story in different ways to different audiences. The anti-ESG criticism we’re seeing in the States will spill out to other countries, and critics will be vocal, however irrational their arguments are, which takes us into what’s happening on the comms front.

With comms, the direction of travel isincreased media fragmentation, misinformation and societal polarization. It’s sad butseems inevitable. Take it to the extreme and this ends up in a place where we can’t even have fact-based conversations about opposing viewpoints and come to agreement. Hopefully we won’t go that far, but as communicators we have to recognise where things are going and be ready with

clear, thought through narratives that make sense of the world for internal and external audiences. Narratives that get everyone on the same page and bring the clarity so everyone can move in the right direction together. And be ready for criticism too.

What advice would you give to someone looking to pivot into sustainability comms?

Leverage your strengths and expertise while gaining a deep understanding of sustainability issues. Take the time to immerse yourself in the core principles of sustainability, like the five capitals, doughnut economics, systems change, read people like Jonathon Porritt, Alison Taylor, John Elkington, Bill Baue. This will give you the foundation to see clearly through all the hype, news and noise and think for yourself. And ask a lot of questions about your own organisation’s sustainability to see what you can make happen ‘at home’ as it were.

Posted on 04.06.2024

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