Economist and Nobel Laureate Paul Romer famously noted that “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste”. Though Romer focused on a very different emergency, COVID-19 has also introduced clear policy challenges, increasingly pliable regulations and leaders that are more engaged than ever. Together, these circumstances could make far reaching changes to the corporate sustainability agenda possible. Early in lockdown, people around the world marvelled at images of natural regrowth as the pause button was pressed on society: abandoned roads and fish returning to tourist-free Venice. UN Environment Chief Inger Anderson told us ‘nature is sending us a message’.
COVID-19 makes clear that small numbers should not deceive us. Just as a transmission rate tipping beyond 1.0 causes alarm, an additional 0.5°C of global warming would generate a climate catastrophe that is worlds apart from the best-case scenario. This half-degree difference could push an additional 23% of the world’s population towards a risk of heatwaves once every 5 years. If consumers and businesses began to view 1.5°C as if it were just the flu, and 2°C as a game-changing pandemic, action would be taken more immediately.
The crisis has evoked significant behavioural changes, and European consumers have certainly become more closely engaged with sustainability topics.
The climate and health emergencies share similar roots. Under the current global economic model, pursuing infinite growth comes at the expense of the environment we depend upon. The need for more natural resources drives both environmental degradation, and the encroachment of humans into various habitats, exposing themselves to yet unknown pathogens. The failure to contain both catastrophes ultimately results from a capitalist drive. An overwhelming majority of nations – albeit with varying degrees of urgency – have taken rigorous measures to contain the spread of COVID-19, even at the expense of economic indicators. However, the climate response has not been so far-reaching. Measures haven’t kept up with the scale and progression of environmental challenges – climate change does not limit itself to election cycles, nor wait on 2030 Sustainable Development Goal agendas.
Is it solely the responsibility of the firm to address environmental sustainability?
Business sustainability efforts often focus narrowly on efficiency-enhancing innovation, however long-term planning is now crucial to ensure the rush to resolve one emergency doesn’t accelerate the arrival of another.
We should be asking exactly what ‘sustainability’ means? Only with the active engagement of every employee can companies transform business models – enabling sustainability to permeate every operational issue. Corporate sustainability departments must move far beyond ‘weak’ visions of sustainability – which are intrinsically technical and anchored in a growth paradigm. The ultimate goal is a lifestyle transformation via ‘strong’ sustainability.
The topic of sustainability has been around for years, but it takes a pandemic to properly kickstart changes. The ‘triple bottom line’ (people, planet and profit) may have been bouncing around boardrooms, however whilst living in lockdown the world has rethought what matters most. People have the time to engage with sustainability issues and become angry about them, and many are realising that fulfilment doesn’t come from what they purchase, but from experiences. Business models, therefore, have a great opportunity for change; those with a myopic focus on the shareholder could redefine their purpose to focus on all stakeholders, as encouraged by the Business Roundtable in August 2019. 
Worryingly, only 30% of business professionals claim that their organisation is continuing their investment into sustainability and energy solutions. Despite this, 97% of business professionals in a Climate Group study say their long-term sustainability strategy remains unchanged, but nearly half (47%) said they still need more supportive government policies to be able to achieve their sustainability goals. Interestingly, a similar number (59%) believe that any financial support should come with green strings attached, prioritizing industries that cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and create green jobs.
Under the current global economic model, pursuing infinite growth comes at the expense of the environment we depend upon.
Individual changes have accelerated during lockdown – we can be optimistic about consumer sentiment on sustainable fashion. The crisis has evoked significant behavioural changes, and European consumers have certainly become more closely engaged with sustainability topics.
There’s a significant opportunity for businesses to incorporate sustainability into their post-COVID recovery plans. However, it will take government involvement, investment and an engaged workforce to bring the changes needed for a cleaner and greener corporate world. Once we move beyond the immediate threats, the environment – and society - would more than welcome a refreshed approach to capitalism.
Written by Chumai Ward, edited by Phoebe Blair