The Legal 500 was delighted to host its first Global Green Guide event in London in sponsorship with Eversheds Sutherland. The summit brought together leading practitioners and in-house counsel in the UK to discuss the legal sector’s engagement with sustainability and a green and just transition.
Accelerating the green and just transition
After a welcome address by Anna Bauböck, Global Green Guide editor at The Legal 500, and Diane Gilhooley, Global Co-Head of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) at Eversheds Sutherland, the first panel session was moderated by Michaela Walker, head of financial services at Eversheds Sutherland. It heard Mark Maurice-Jones, general counsel UK and Ireland at Nestlé, and Anna Triponel, founder and advisor at Human Level, discuss how the concept of a green and just transition is increasingly at the centre of policy and business strategy.
This first session explored the opportunities and challenges faced by General Counsel in relation global supply chains, business and human rights, net zero strategies. Maurice-Jones started off highlighting the importance of involving employees in sustainability measures and bringing people along the journey with you. He also stressed the need to be humble, and to work together with those who may criticise you, such as NGOs amongst others.
Triponel described the tensions arising in the rush towards a green transition and stressed how companies should be thinking more strategically to facilitate a just transition. In her opinion, companies and sectors will radically transform over the next decades, and therefore businesses need to be looking ahead into the future.
As the ESG agenda takes centre stage in business strategy, Maurice-Jones described some of the changes in his daily work. For example, Nestlé is getting more involved in external advocacy and partnerships, such as working on projects with agricultural communities to incentivise sustainable farming. He flagged how anti-trust issues are coming to the fore; working with competitors creates opportunities but also requires caution. He gave the example of a partnership to incentivise the recycling of coffee capsules which involved complicated contracts. Lastly, he stressed the need to not over-embellish promises or claims to avoid greenwashing repercussions.
Anna agreed that lawyers’ role in a green and just transition is critical and is changing. She drew attention to the seemingly never-ending stream of laws which can feel overwhelming and suggested taking a step back to consider why these laws are here and again, to look ahead to prepare for future legislation. Secondly, she pointed out how companies aren’t structured to meet expectations and report adequately, and stressed the need to connect teams because other departments may already be doing the work. Lastly, she proposed to discard the (unrealistic) quest for certainty and comfort.
Addressing some of the challenges as well as opportunities the green and just transition has presented in the legal team, Maurice-Jones drew attention to the importance of an open and transparent culture within the company where people dare to disagree and listen to critics.
Triponel agreed that being vocal is critical. She also commented on the need to shift the dialogue to actually taking action about issues such as, for example, child labour.
Looking to the future and addressing the tsunami of legislation impacting business, Maurice-Jones stressed the importance of horizon-scanning and watching out for trends outside of the bubble of one’s own company.
A dynamic Q&A session at the end of the panel raised some more important issues, such as the constant juggling act for GCs as they deal with sustainability issues on top of everything else and how ultimately, there will be a need for more lawyers. While inhouse counsel do not necessarily have to be specialised in ESG, they are critical agents in joining the dots and interconnecting different actors.
Interactive session: The evolving role of the General Counsel
After a coffee break Gilhooley and Lee Ranson, Co-Chief Executive Officer at Eversheds Sutherland, led a lively interactive session examining the evolving role of the General Counsel as ESG moves into the mainstream. Audience members responded to a number of questions followed by a discussion of the live polling results. Ranson kicked off the session with his statement that ESG is ‘doing the right thing’. It requires linking the head and the heart, and is fundamental to any business’ success.
Some keys findings included: More than half of the audience agreed that sustainability and ESG factors are of a very high importance to the long term success of the company; most of the audience agreed that their organisations’ progress on ESG related matters to date are still in a developing stage; and almost half of the audience believed people (employees, customers, suppliers, consumers) are the primary driver of ESG strategy. The poll also revealed that a vast majority of the audience were currently only somewhat clear on their role in relation to their organisation’s ESG strategy, and that training, resources, information and a clear strategy are among the top things that would make them feel more prepared to deal with ESG responsibilities moving forward.
Navigating brand, reputation, and reporting
The second panel was moderated by Matthew Allen, global head of the financial services sector group and global co-head of financial services disputes and investigations at Eversheds Sutherland. Anthony Kenny, assistant GC corporate at GSK, Paula Alessandro, a general counsel a at (Standard Chartered Ventures), and Kari McCormick, partner at Eversheds Sutherland, shared their thoughts about the opportunities and challenges facing General Counsel as they seek to manage brand, reputation and reporting at a time of increased regulatory and stakeholder pressure.
Kenny kicked off the discussion by acknowledging the challenges in dealing with the volume of new legislation. At GSK separate teams work on the E, S and G and each element is vast and different. He believes the challenge lies, on the one hand, in there being too much information, and, on the other hand, different parts of the business having different responsibilities.
Referring to her experience of working at larger banks, Alessandro suggested that there is no common understanding of what ESG means. She also warned of the law being overly prescriptive in regulation which can be counter-productive. It may have the unintended consequences of companies being afraid to say anything because of fear of sanctions. In her opinion, you have to give businesses the opportunity to make positive changes and not be afraid of regulation. She believes trying to regulate purpose is one the biggest challenges.
Kenny voiced his opinion that when it comes to ESG, there is a need to focus on the things that really matter without trying to quantify everything.
Referring to ESG ratings, Alessandro proposed that lawyers should be working together with regulators to create a framework that is practical and which has to address the fear of greenwashing. She thinks legal departments have a hugely important role to play when it comes to ESG. Anthony highlighted especially with regards to the E of ESG, it should be measured with science-based methods. He also acknowledged that knowing how to present this information is what determines brand reputation. Alessandro pointed out that if you are in a sector where your main product is fossil fuel, it doesn’t matter how good your ESG practices are, at the end you will have a bad impact because of your product. Hence, in her opinion, there is a need to view ESG more holistically and focus on what companies are doing to transition. She also acknowledged the tension between making money and doing what’s right.
In McCormick’s experience, legal teams often haven’t yet worked out what their ESG role is within a company. When it comes to strategy that mitigates against risk of greenwashing, she believes good governance is essential. While the board is held responsible, they need support from different teams, including the legal team, to identifying the priority risks.
In Kenny’s opinion, it’s a balance: People tend to gravitate towards compliance issues, but there should be more of a focus on employees, supply chains, and also positive developments. He stressed the importance of a working culture which flows down from the board to the employees.
Alessandro raised an important question: As information flows through the organisation, do you have the oversight that puts you in a position to make a contribution?
Kenny believes lawyers have an important role to play because they have a unique view of business obligations. A lot of the tsunami of regulation is after all law, and legal teams have a role to play in designing policies to comply with ESG regulations. But he also pointed to legal’s role in building trust. Alessandro added that externally, for advocacy, it is important to explain why you’re doing what you’re doing, otherwise people don’t understand what you’re doing and don’t take it seriously. In her opinion, you need to think about how to make a message true and fair, avoiding greenwashing. Since NGOs and other people will scrutinise, it’s also important to think not only about what you’re saying but about what you’re not saying.
As everyone is demanding companies to make disclosures, from legislators and regulators to clients and employees, McCormick drew attention to the different terms of greenwashing, green-hushing and green-bleaching. An example of green-hushing would be companies choosing not to publicise details of their climate targets in an attempt to avoid scrutiny and allegations of greenwashing. Green-bleaching similarly involves choosing not to claim ESG features in order to avoid extra regulation and potential legal risks.
An animated Q&A session provoked some final thoughts by the speakers, including the need to stay humble, embracing adversaries such as NGOs, and communicating and collaborating across industries as the collective power of knowledge is valuable, and we can all help each other.
To round off the evening, everyone was invited to stay on and mingle over drinks and canapés, giving participants and speakers a chance to network and continue the conversation