In the devastating aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle which hit the North Island of New Zealand in mid-February, it feels like a switch has been flicked. We’ve gone through a point of no return, where the effects of climate change that we’ve been talking about for so long are now real and here to stay.
Extreme weather is now part of our reality. The conversation around the need for action has changed.
Where environmental considerations and initiatives were once nice-to-haves and tick-box exercises, they now need to be backed up. And urgently too.
Climate change is as high on the New Zealand consciousness as it’s ever been. Ipsos monitoring shows it re-entered the top five issues on voters’ minds in February; the first time it’s done so since mid-2019.
When we look back on this in the next few years, Cyclone Gabrielle might just be a point of inflection for the way businesses talk about the environment and prioritise social licence. As the public mood shifts, so too do the standards for business’ social licences.
People want to see action. Their tolerance for grey areas is fading, and those who don’t have credible, meaningful environmental strategies are one extreme weather event away from being black-listed.
Take forestry for example. There was talk around the issue of slash in the past, and while some changes have been made, it wasn’t enough to prevent damage and destruction to roads, bridges and other infrastructure around Tairawhiti and Hawke’s Bay.
The sector that was once a carbon-sequestering darling and a regional economic powerhouse is now under the spotlight. It’s the subject of a Ministerial inquiry. Its social licence has been significantly impacted, and the road to reputational repair is a long one.
Maybe it seemed like an issue that could wait. But the switch can flick so fast, and the reputational consequences can be massive and long lasting.
We can expect to see an even greater lens to be put on the private sector in future. For businesses, the standard for your social licence will continue to shift, which means walking the walk and being put under more pressure to do more.
Being able to demonstrate a cast-iron commitment to the environment is your best chance of not only staying on the right side of the debate, but differentiating yourself from your competition with respect to an ever-growing public priority.