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Friend of Tortoise Exclusive

Deeds and words matter: how can we close the say-do gap?

Deeds and words matter: how can we close the say-do gap?

This event is exclusive to Friends of Tortoise

in partnership with Edelman

The science is clear. There is, however, a gap between what we know needs to happen and the actions we are taking. This is true of governments, businesses, and all of us as individuals . To close the gap we need to change the way we communicate to capture public imagination, create momentum and galvanise people into action. How can we communicate the climate emergency without catastrophizing? How do we make the science of climate change easier to understand and the language jargon-free? How can we communicate the benefits of net-zero in ways that feel real to people and relevant to their lives? How do we use communications to empower consumers to change their behaviours? Who should we look to as the most trusted climate communicators – and what can we learn from them?


For a ThinkIn about what more needs to be done to cut through to the public and capture their imagination when it comes to the climate crisis, we kicked off with relatively positive news. As per the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer global report, we should be in no doubt that the idea that climate change is an existential crisis has trickled through the public – it absolutely has. The report showed that 72 per cent of people were worried about climate change. In terms of people’s fears, it ranked second only to the prospect of losing their job. 

We’re in need of optimism. A worrying aspect of the findings is that there’s also a sense that we’re already past the tipping point – a degree of fatalism and paralysis has kicked in. From that standpoint, the challenge isn’t so much finding a way to communicate the seriousness of the climate crisis, but rather how to mobilise people and give them a sense of optimism about tackling it.

It was a theme Ed Williams, Edelman’s president and CEO, kept coming back to, saying that key to harnessing the kind of optimism needed is highlighting the new forms of technology that are being created as part of climate solutions – waterless toilets or biodegradable computer chip boards, for instance.

Addressing the climate crisis is not a zero-sum game. Ed said that many consumers see tackling the climate crisis as something that will involve trade offs; sacrificing growth, jobs and other economic gains: “there’s still an unwillingness to sacrifice their own personal comforts”. Forty-one per cent say they’re reluctant to reduce travel, and seven in ten say they’re not prepared to pay for climate-friendly solutions. So it seems that the first step is to communicate that the solutions are affordable.

Trust in institutions needs to be restored.  Something else uncovered in Edelman’s Trust Barometer was that while trust in government, media and NGOs has fallen, the level of trust in business is relatively high. But when it comes to trusting companies to take action on climate, the picture is different: trust in business to do what is right was found to be around 60 per cent, but only 45 per cent when it comes to trusting business specifically on climate action. But while this means that businesses need to restore that trust, Ed said it also suggests that the public sees government regulation as the most viable path out of the climate crisis.

Accountability is key. When it comes to what companies are saying on climate change versus what they’re doing, much of the conversation focused on what mechanisms exist for measuring these “say-do gaps”. 

The lack of such a mechanism is one of the reasons why Tortoise came up with the Responsibility100 Index – a ranking of the FTSE 100 companies on their commitment to key social, environmental and ethical objectives, inspired by the UN Sustainable Development Goals. 

Rebecca Marmot, Unilever’s Chief Sustainability Officer says that if a company is genuine about behaving in a more ethical way, it becomes apparent in all the employees’ jobs. For instance, when Unilever looked at updating the work that they had done as part of their ten-year Sustainable Living Plan, they spoke to 40,000 employees globally about what their sustainability priorities were, which acted as a catalyst for reforming how jobs across the company could be done. She went on to say that in Unilever, the level of rigour that their sustainability plans are subjected to are the same as any other area of the business, and that investors and consumers alike are genuinely interested in these companies acting sustainably. 

Rebecca also suggested that by making events like Cop 26 less technical, elitist and intimidating in the language they use, and instead putting ordinary people at the centre of it, they can become more accessible and transparent, making it easier for the public to assess what’s being said versus what’s being done.

Scrutinising institutions depends on them having something for us to scrutinise. Professor Robert Watson said that when it comes to scrutinising companies’ say-do gaps, accountability – to governments, NGOs, and their shareholders – is key. But Watson also stressed that his level of confidence in CEOs was on par with his level of confidence in government. He bemoaned the rhetoric from both the public and private sectors, as well as from individuals, and the fact that not enough of that rhetoric was being turned into action – especially so far at Cop 26: “…our goals and targets are fine” he said, “but they’re meaningless without well-defined monitorable action.” He said that the pledges made by the British government, for instance, are fine, but there is a dearth of actual policy for us to monitor when it comes to following through on them.

When the conversation turned to keeping the global heating limit at 1.5 C, it was noted that if countries live up to their nationally-defined contributions when it comes to their emissions, a realistic outcome would be a global emissions limit of below 2 C – around 1.7 or 1.8. But Professor Watson disputed this. How could such a reduction occur if the four countries that use and produce the most coal – US, China, India and Australia – weren’t party to the deal to phase that particularly dirty fuel out? Professor Watson thinks that the pledges made by the British government are fine – but that there is a dearth of actual policy for us to monitor when it comes to following through on them.

Long-term solutions are complementary to short-term goals. Something that was important to discuss when it came to long-term decisions was that, whether a politician or CEO, short-term pressure is misaligned with long-term climate goals. But as Rebecca highlighted, businesses’ long-term climate goals are now very much aligned with their own short-term corporate goals: changing drought and rainfall patterns mean that areas of the world where companies used to source their products from are now threatened. Likewise with politicians: the prevalence of climate-induced natural disasters, such as the floods we saw in Germany or the wildfires in Greece and Turkey over the summer, means that actually lawmakers are taking action urgently. Thinking just in the short-term would be risky – and frankly stupid.

Collaboration is key. We wrapped up with Ed’s point that we’re only going to move forward by holding events like this ThinkIn, bringing together various corporate entities, scientists, politicians and journalists. It’s this kind of collaboration that Tortoise is hoping to achieve with its Accelerating Net Zero Coalition. To find out more, visit our Accelerating Net Zero homepage.

editor and invited experts

James Harding
Co-founder and Editor

Ed Williams
President and CEO, Edelman EMEA

Professor Robert Watson
International authority on climate change and biodiversity

Rebecca Marmot
Chief Sustainability Officer, Unilever