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North America's largest and longest-running sustainability conference returned to Vancouver for its 32nd year

When news broke on February 15 that B.C. would be lifting most of its COVID-19 restrictions, including allowing indoor events to return to full capacity, few were as excited as the organizers behind the Globe Forum. After a two-year absence, Vancouver-based Globe—the largest and longest-running sustainability conference in North America, now in its 32nd year—was able to offer a full slate of in-person panels and presentations at the Vancouver Convention Centre.

“It was like kids in a candy store,” says Dr. Carol-Ann Brown, president of the ESG (environmental, social and governance) consultants Delphi Group, the intellectual firepower behind Globe (the event is run by sister organization Globe Series). “This was the first big event in our topic space since we got shut down by COVID. People had great things to say about Globe, but mostly it was: Oh my God—so good to see you in person!”

The three-day conference kicked off March 29 with a keynote address from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—who made a surprise announcement on Canada’s Net Zero plan, setting a 40 percent emissions reductions target for Canada’s oil and gas sector—along with new mandatory targets for electric vehicle sales (at least 20 percent of all new personal vehicles sold in Canada will be zero emissions by 2026; 60 percent by 2030; 100 percent by 2035).

The announcement resonated with Brown—who, prior to 2021, led the Delphi cleantech team and worked with industry players across Canada to accelerate the deployment and commercialization of cleantech solutions. Today, Brown and her team are helping clients (Fortune 500 companies, medium-sized businesses, even governments) to navigate the evolving ESG landscape—or, as she puts it, “accompany people on their sustainability journey.”

That landscape has changed dramatically since Trudeau made his splashy Vancouver announcement, however. As we approach the summer of 2022, gas prices are at a record high, the war in Ukraine rages on, stock markets and corporate earnings are in the doldrums—and inflation is running at levels not seen since another Trudeau was prime minister. In other words: significant headwinds for anyone trying to make the sustainability journey.

“I’ve lived through the vagaries of the oil and gas sector,” says Brown, who lives in Calgary but visits Vancouver often, where Delphi and Globe share an office. “Yes, clients have increased costs. They have supply chain issues. And inflation is hitting them in various ways.” But so far, Brown says, clients are not putting the brakes on ESG efforts—but rather, revaluating what’s important to them in 2022.

“People are not saying, ‘I can’t do anything.’ It’s more: ‘How do I manage my different priorities?’ It’ll be interesting to see, if we continue to have high inflation, if we go into recession, if there’s really any impact. But so far, the commitment to sustainability has stayed.”

After years of ESG investing being the “hot new thing,” there has also recently been blowback from some corners of the financial and political worlds—arguing that the focus on ESG (especially from big institutional investors like Blackrock) has come at a high cost for consumers and businesses. Many also criticize the loosey-goosey way in which ESG is measured and scored.

But for Brown—a Rhodes scholar whose PhD at Oxford was focused on wind power in China—the future of ESG is not in big corporations, who have teams in place to manage reporting and compliance. It’s in the growing interest from small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

“Over the last year and a half, we’ve seen many more of the SMEs coming to us,” notes Brown. “They are not publicly traded. They don't have the same kind of obligations. Maybe they’re being hit with stuff that they don't understand, or there’s an internal passion—a legacy that they feel they need to leave behind. And those are the really exciting opportunities.”