The lesson in sustainability communications that banks must learn from Icarus

By Brad Starr, Account Manager, Aspectus Group

Icarus, the son of the legendary master craftsman of Greek mythology, Daedalus, was brought up in captivity on the Island of Crete. In their daring escape, the pair armed themselves with matching sets of mechanical wings, covered in feathers collected from the beaches. Giddy with joy at having successfully fled, Icarus flew too close to the sun, melting the wax binding the feathers to the wings, and he crashed to his demise amid violent waves.

It is one of the tales of Greek mythology. But the lesson that it intends to convey does not always register.

The major investment banks that make up the world’s biggest zero-carbon financing club, GFANZ, are giving the impression that they are flying towards a brighter, greener economic future. But they should look to Icarus. Because we are feeling the flaming heat of the sun now more than when the legend of Icarus was said to have lived, and sea levels are rising.

The issue with the pledges that these banks are making is that they simply aren’t sustainable – by September this year, and staring down the throat of this year’s event, JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley, and Bank of America were among a faction that were ready to quit. The reason? Fossil fuel as an industry has had a remarkable turnaround this year, and the banks’ fiduciary duty requires them to look for profits wherever they can.

I am sure they had big dreams of flying high on the reputational rewards gleaned from committing to work towards net-zero. The issue is, when you then don’t carry through on those promises, and actually increase your funding of the fossil fuel industry, it melts the communicative wax binding your actions to your public reputation. It is dangerous to throw yourself publicly into a course of action that you aren’t fully committed to travel down. Supporting this view, law firm DLA Piper has gone on record as stating that any company making a net-zero claim without scientific underpinnings may be viewed as having misled consumers, which could lead to real legal consequences.

All of this underpins the importance of considered and clear communications when it comes to issues around sustainability. Every firm wants to be viewed positively by the public – but what is vitally important is that you aren’t perceived as a firm that is disingenuous about the way you communicate in this burgeoning area of finance. Only through meticulously developed communications strategies, that are created in perfect alignment with business goals and in the context of the holistic sustainability impacts of business activities, can firms ensure that their public reputation does not suffer the same fate as Icarus.

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