Judging the edie Awards

By David Bent

I know who wins the edie awards as Business Leader of the Year, and SME of the year. Not because of a leak, or because I stole into their offices. Because I’m one of the esteemed judges (yes, they do call us that). Here are some reflections.

The expanding meaning of ‘sustainability’. 
The awards are in their 17th year. I had a look back at the first ones from 2007. Some key differences strike me immediately.

First, the name. They were the edie Awards for Environmental Excellence. Now they are the edie Awards, celebrating sustainability leadership.

Second, the categories. None has survived, though ‘Green Personality of the Year’ has become two: Business Leader of the Year and Sustainability Leader of the Year.

In 2007, there were categories for projects (carbon reduction, waste, construction) and consultancies (environmental, CSR, due diligence, environmental impact assessment, waste and recycling, climate change, water, contaminated land and the best to work for). All these speak to the framing of ‘environment’ as primarily about operational impacts that should be reduced.

In 2024, there are more categories on more topics. Some on projects (energy, behaviour change, marketing campaign, infrastructure, transport). But also businesses (sustainable business, SME) and innovations (circular economy, product), plus investor and partnership. There’s 3 awards on Net Zero, a term which didn’t exist in 2007, plus one each for nature and for diversity and inclusion . There’s only one award for consultancy.

All these categories speak to how sustainability is viewed now: important to many industries and stakeholders; and, more than operational projects but also strategic initiatives and core business propositions.

The wider range of topics also says how the field has moved from ‘just’ environment to social issues as well. (All we need to do now is integrate social issues into our responses to environmental challenges, so that we have a truly just transition.)

It also speaks to who has marketing budget. In 2007, it was consultancies who paid to enter, and so get the promotion. Now, many more businesses want to be known for their efforts. They think it is worth spending money to enter.

The greater depth and quality of effort.
I was lead judge on the SME awards this year, which meant reading some 30 entries. There’s only so much I can say. But what I can say is that many of those SMEs were doing things now that would have been seen as leading for large companies in 2007.

The field has not just expanded to include wider topics and more types of organisation. It has also deepened in quality and effort.

Better but still not good enough.
As Our World in Data has said for our global situation: things can be awful, better than before and can be better in the future — all at the same time.

That is true for business and sustainability: most large companies around the world behave bad-to-awful; many are better than before; and, we all need to do and be a lot better, fast, if we are going to secure a sustainable future.

A weary judge gives advice.
After reading 30 entries, I can give some advice to people who fill out the forms.

1. Don’t use boilerplate cliches. So, you’ve put sustainability at the heart of your business. So, sustainability is part of your DNA. So, you value all of your stakeholders. So, your staff are your greatest asset. So says you. So says everyone else. Everyone. Else. There is nothing useful in these phrases, They take up word count and tell the judge (me) that you have nothing useful to say. Stop it.

2. Get to the point. Assume the reader has got a lot of similar entries to read, in a couple of batches, against a deadline, when they had promised themselves they would start earlier this year.

Address them directly, clearly. Be straightforward. Avoid the management jargon which is halfway to The Office sitcom.

3. Show, don’t tell. Do not tell me that your CEO is an inspiration. Anyone can write that. Show me that they have been inspirational. Don’t tell me that you are a leading organisation. Show me what you have done and what the outcomes have been.

4. Quantitative evidence stands out. Part of showing is giving evidence. I like any evidence (except other awards; there’s something too smoke-and-mirrors about saying you should win this award because you won that other award).

As evidence, numbers do stand out. Especially when you can put them in context and be clear about why X number is a good performance. Is it better than last year? Is it better than the competition or industry standard?

See you at the Awards!

Still time to secure your place at the awards ceremony on Wed 6 March in Park Plaza, Westminster, London. Last year the wine was good, the dancing mediocre (truth be told) but the speeches fantastic (Rachel Kyte was on fantastic, blistering form). Also, seeing the different winners an inspiration (so I tell you).