Visa sustainability case study images
27th Jul 2020
3 Min Read

Sustainability: tomorrow’s problem or today’s solution?

Alastair Atkinson
Alastair Atkinson
People & Change

If you think engaging colleagues in your business’ sustainability agenda is a needless luxury at the moment, you might want to think again.

At the height of the coronavirus lockdown, the world’s daily CO2 emissions were around 17% below 2019 levels. [i] Sounds good, doesn’t it? But consider this: millions of people stopped driving, entire airline fleets were grounded and factories across the world slashed or stopped production, and yet CO2 emissions didn’t even drop by a fifth.

Here’s another cause for concern: many scientists assert that, if we’re to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change, we need to keep global temperature rises below 1.5oC beyond pre-industrial levels. [ii] To achieve that, annual carbon emissions need to drop by around 7.6% every year. [iii] The current estimate for this year’s carbon reduction, taking account of lockdown, is around 8%. [iv] So, given that lockdown is easing and people are beginning to revert to old habits, there will need to be radical changes if we’re to achieve similar reductions in 2021, 2022 and onwards.

There’s no time like the present

In view of the economic difficulties on the horizon, many businesses are re-evaluating their priorities. In September 2019, a report by EcoAct suggested that 85% of the FTSE100 didn’t have adequate carbon reduction strategies to help limit global warming to safe levels. [v] Despite that worrying conclusion, how many of those, not to mention much smaller companies in the UK and overseas, will decide that spending money on environmental sustainability in 2021 just isn’t an urgent priority?

But what if investing in sustainability is a route out of the mire? This year, Visa Europe – part of the global payment services giant – has already put time and resources into raising the profile of, and therefore adding impetus to, its sustainability agenda. Back in February, I was privileged to run a full-day workshop with stakeholders from across the business, at which we worked on raising colleague engagement around sustainability and thereby unlocking as-yet unrealised potential. The workshop covered several areas:

  1. The foundations for Visa Europe’s sustainability narrative. Through a group exercise and a series of provocative questions, we explored Visa’s approach and attitude to sustainability. Which factors were prompting it to act? What was its current sustainability status? Where did it want to be? What was it prepared to do about it? And what did it need from its people?
  2. Audience analysis. Which audience segments were we dealing with? Which factors were influencing each segment and why?
  3. Communication objectives. Having segmented our audiences, what did we want each group to think, feel and do?
  4. Communication principles. For example, did we want to approach the subject on a global or local level? Was it preferable to adopt economic or emotional arguments, or both?
  5. Big ideas and campaign tactics. Thinking about Visa Europe’s own sustainability plans, plus external events and milestones, we brainstormed ideas for an effective sustainability hook, along with practical ideas for shifting the dial on sustainability in terms of colleague awareness and, more importantly, action.

So, where’s the business benefit?

In March 2020, a YouGov poll asked more than 3,500 adults whether they were more worried about coronavirus or climate change. Forty five percent said climate change, with only 32% saying coronavirus. [vi] Of course, this is a snapshot, and responses might change in the coming months, depending on whether we continue to see spikes in the disease. Nevertheless, it’s an illustration of how strongly many people (i.e. consumers) feel about environmental sustainability.

Smart businesses are taking note. The eco-cleaning brand, Ecover, recently invested in a high-profile TV advertising campaign. In it, rappers and TV presenters extol the virtues of buying fewer clothes and keeping them for longer, rather than filling your wardrobe with landfill fodder every few weeks. It’s yet another sign that the green pound is there for the taking.

If that sounds cynical, it’s not supposed to. What’s wrong with doing well as long as you’re doing good?

But businesses should beware. Talking a good game isn’t enough. Thanks to smartphones, search engines and social media, consumers have so much information at their fingertips that bold claims will attract derision if unsupported by meaningful action. That’s another reason why getting employees on board is so important.

As the old saying goes, they’re the ones who know about the skeletons in the closet. If you’re simply trying to greenwash the outside world, you’ll be outed by employees pretty quickly. By the same token, colleagues are the ones who can help you turn genuine good intentions into reality; they’re the ones who’ll identify everyday processes that could be more sustainable, who’ll help you productise green solutions and who’ll tell their friends and family that you’re serious about sustainability.

Sustainability is strategy

Since the workshop, we’ve helped Visa to raise awareness as part of Earth Day celebrations in April. Through all kinds of digital media, we shared success stories with colleagues and busted common myths about what it takes to live more sustainably.

Now, as the world tries to recover economically from coronavirus, Visa’s business model and its sustainability aspirations are, more than ever, falling into lockstep. For example, it’s currently working on bringing contactless payment to 48 public transit systems across Europe. That effectively means it’s helping to remove barriers to people using public transport, which could, in time, cut millions of car journeys, thus reducing carbon emissions and air pollution. By helping them share these stories with colleagues, and the wider world, we at scarlettabbott are building more reasons to believe and to strive for better.

By its own admission, Visa has a long way to go in terms of sustainability. They aren’t angelic eco-warriors, and neither am I. I don’t always know what can and can’t be recycled, I still drive a petrol car and I’ve definitely contributed to delivery drivers’ mileage during lockdown.

But I do reuse carrier bags, I’m still wearing jumpers I bought when I was a teenager and I’ve started making more journeys by bicycle. Plus, by helping my clients to have meaningful conversations about sustainability, I feel like I’m playing a small part in nudging this big, green, people-powered juggernaut in the right direction.

[i] Le Quéré, C., Jackson, R.B., Jones, M.W. et al. Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement. Nat. Clim. Chang. 10, 647–653 (2020).


[iii] United Nations Environment Programme (2019). Emissions Gap Report 2019. UNEP, Nairobi.

[iv] IEA (2020), Global Energy Review 2020, IEA, Paris

[v] EcoAct (2019), The Sustainability Reporting Performance of the FTSE 100, Annual Report September 2019


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