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On the Record with Heather Clancy: Building a Sustainable Future

April 28, 2021

‘On the Record’ is a series where we sit down with our colleagues and friends who are often at the receiving end of our pitch emails — journalists. We will be tackling hot topics, learning and growing from their perspective and thoughtful advice.

In this post, Kamilla Rahman explores sustainability at a corporate level, outlines what a meaningful sustainable strategy incorporates and shares what companies are doing to make the most impact with GreenBiz vice president and editorial director, Heather Clancy.

Kamilla Rahman (KR): How did you get your start in this kind of journalism and why do you consider yourself passionate about sustainability?

Heather Clancy (HC): I started my career as a business reporter covering information technology and software, and at the time I pivoted in 2012, energy efficiency in data centers and electronic waste were hot topics. It was an abrupt change: I got laid off from the trade publication I was working for and an old friend of mine called me and asked, “what do you want to write about?” I said, “green technology” and that’s how I got into this. Initially, I was freelancing at a variety of places including CBS Interactive and GreenBiz, and over time I got sucked into the GreenBiz world.

I’m passionate about this because we need companies to act on climate change, to focus on doing business in a better way. I feel hopeful that there is progress being made but the business world needs to move more quickly.

KR: What do you love most about covering sustainability?

HC: I’m hopeful about our sustainable path forward, and it’s great to see how people and organizations acted in the past four years despite federal leadership. A lot of the innovation in this space is driven by the public sector, and I love how there’s always something new happening at the state and local level. There’s always someone pushing the envelope to go better and farther, and it’s great to be at the forefront.

KR: Are there specific areas of sustainability that you find most interesting right now? What do you dislike most when covering sustainability?

HC: Right now, I’m very interested in carbon removal technologies and how organizations are making a profitable business model for it. Oftentimes, it’s talked about as an expense, since the initial investment costs so much money, but it can also help drive new revenues. So, it’s great to learn about the new carbon technology companies coming into play. I’m also really interested in carbon sequestration in concrete and the building sector. It’s great to learn how a company can distinguish itself in the space and how organizations are interested in investing in it. Additionally, the tree planting movement is also a unique space. It’s interesting to see how companies are supporting reforestation and understocked forests. Overall, it’s great for the climate cause but also for livelihoods in local economies.

As for dislikes of the industry, there’s unfortunately a lot of greenwashing. Many companies are doing good and say they are doing good, but there’s often a random description being used that is usually questionable. In this area, there’s no common thread or definition to a lot of these initiatives. For example, there are so many ways to define “carbon positive” and “net zero,” so many organizations can claim these based on their own terms and it’s frustrating. Also, many companies aren’t willing to be transparent with updates on progress. It would be great if organizations address what’s working, what’s not working, what could be better and learn from these mistakes to make progress.

KR: In your opinion, why should sustainability and running an environmentally conscious business be top-of-mind for organizations of all sizes?

HC: This really applies to everything you do for the future. Sustainability and environmental awareness make organizations more attractive from a hiring perspective and a consumer perspective. There’s data showing how people are willing to work for or purchase from an organization that is conscientious, so there’s an overall sustainability advantage. However, on the other side there is still greenwashing, so there’s not always trust and then there’s the denier community who distrusts science.

KR: How would you suggest organizations go about their sustainability strategy? In what ways can they have the most impact?

HC: Making the most impact starts with having your sustainability strategy tied to your business strategy. It shouldn’t be a one-off initiative; it has to align with overall organizational goals. In today’s world, there’s a lot of division when it comes to policy and I think that’s why so many companies are afraid to speak out, in addition to what goes on internally with their legal and compliance teams. But as we’ve learned, especially in recent months, saying nothing also speaks volumes.

KR: Are there certain companies (without naming names) that have done it right and how?

HC: Companies that price carbon into their operations and those that are factoring carbon emissions in their revenue streams are the ones that are doing the best in this space, but companies have to start thinking about their supply chain differently and use their power to help smaller companies make investments to also get them to this same place.

I’d like to see companies, especially larger corporations, use their power to help smaller organizations prioritize sustainability since they may not have the power or resources to do so. I also tend to appreciate companies that are inspiring operational changes towards sustainability by making it part of their financial model. The impact and commitment are truly shown here.

KR: What do you think PR people should understand when pitching you sustainable-related product, launches and updates?

HC: My biggest word of advice when pitching these kinds of stories is to understand the context of what you’re pitching and spend more time understanding what these jargony terms like “carbon neutral,” “carbon positive,” etc. actually mean before framing a story. PR is often viewed as transactional but understanding the context of the industry and the bigger picture along with implications will go miles with any sort of storytelling.  

Also, I encourage follow-up stories in this space. There are so many pitches and stories on single initiatives and announcements, but I’d also like to know what happened, what progress was made and what was learned. I think in a way this can also encourage more companies to be more open to sustainable strategies — even if something didn’t work at least it was tried, and this could encourage trial and error.