Davos is done for another year, but something was missing from 2024’s conference – sustainability.

There was lots of back-patting around initiatives that commit variously to increasing demand for green technologies, "providing a platform for developing economies to raise awareness about their clean energy needs" (whatever that means), and in classic sleight of hand, planting 12 billion trees that won't have an environmental impact for decades.

Also on the schedule was what appeared to be a “ski and networking” session for those who wanted to chat climate change. Ironic, given the steady 10-year decline in snow covering across Europe.

The forum’s theme was ‘rebuilding trust’. But for too long now, companies have at best failed to earn the public's trust when it comes to sustainability or, all too often, eroded or lost it altogether.

So, what needs to change? You can break this into three parts. Communicators must mature the level of conversation we hold around sustainability, make room for imperfections and the messy real world, and not be afraid to face the toughest questions surrounding the world’s sustainable transition.

The elephant in the room is turning into a herd by now: we won't move the dial in terms of slowing climate change until we reduce emissions. And the biggest emitters of GHGs are companies.

Some 75% of global emissions are caused by the world's 100 biggest companies. During arguably the one time of the year that they're all together, you'd have hoped for more than vague ambitions and tired stunts.

In the absence of meaningful sustainable comms during Davos, here’s something of a roadmap for the rest of 2024.


Rebuilding trust means identifying where it’s been lost in the first place. Credibility has suffered when organisations occupy one of the two poles of disingenuous greenwashing or apathetic silence.

Somewhere between the two is the messy, grey area reality of how organisations set and reach sustainability goals.

Communicators therefore have their work cut out in the real world to reach audiences jaded by cynicism and smoke-and-mirrors PR. The sustainability comms battle of 2024 will be won by those companies and brands that tackle these tough questions head on. The ones who admit fallibility and communicate realistic plans. The ones who are honest about their progress – both the successes and the failures.

Having a grown-up conversation

Sustainability communications has never been more urgent and multifaceted. It's not only about companies communicating their plans and progress, but for the collective ‘climate agenda’ (from companies to governments, IGOs and NGOs) to help the general public's engagement with the topic mature.

This is not to in any way put the blame or responsibility on consumers, but to empower them to apply pressure in more impactful and transformative ways. For companies, this means tolerating tough questions and being braver in providing answers that inform and equip, even if met with a spiky response.

Consumers, governments, and society must be able to make the most of the narrowing window of time we have in which to fix the myriad issues we face.

This would allow growth in some of the following debates. Should we really kill fossil fuels entirely when Global South development needs cannot be met through current renewables capacity? Does blanket divestment from oil and gas majors decarbonise the atmosphere, or just the funds that have left them? If corporate transparency is key, should we stop demanding A-grade performers across the board and instead make room for visibly transitioning C-graders to encourage others to follow suit?

Who, me?

Can we rely on the biggest companies to lead from the front on transformed sustainability communications? Maybe. But maybe not. At a time when the biggest asset managers in the world are banning the term 'ESG' and the biggest oil producers are suing investors for suggesting they reduce emissions, you'd be forgiven for being sceptical.

Yet even if braveness and proactivity in engaging in these challenging but ultimately constructive sustainability conversations are patchy among the biggest companies, more dynamic and less bogged down SMEs that form the majority of the economy have a brilliant opportunity to set a new tone alongside more progressive major players in 2024.

When we think about rebuilding trust in sustainable communications, it's hard to do better than the old adage: trust is earned.

Henry Kirby is head of ESG and sustainability at Woodrow.

Read all PRovoke Media’s Davos coverage here.