The COVID-19 pandemic brought with it real environmental implications. Suddenly, everyone was using disposable masks (and all too frequently, not disposing of them properly) and turning to online shopping to keep their pantries stocked and kill the boredom, driving up shipping emissions and packaging. But there were environmental gains, too. People were traveling less — much less — and commuting was replaced across the globe with remote work. In fact, global greenhouse gas emissions fell by about 2.4 billion tons in 2020 as a result of COVID-related travel restrictions, a 7% drop from 2019. It was the largest such decline on record.
While the focus on immediate health concerns is to be expected in a global pandemic, sustainability advocates like former L’Oreal Executive Nicolas Krafft say leadership on environmental issues is needed now more than ever. In fact, argues Krafft, the goal to end the pandemic and to redouble efforts to achieve sustainability do not need to be mutually exclusive. Instead, he says, the pandemic has presented us with an opportunity to rethink how we live and work in ways that can serve sustainability goals moving forward.
Sustainability in the Time of COVID
The University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership recently published a report: “The implications of COVID-19 for leadership on sustainability.” In it, they engage in conversations with a number of sustainability leaders and advocates on what COVID-19 has taught us about building economic, social, and environmental resilience, and how business leaders can embrace the transformed workplace and contribute to a more sustainable future.
The report talks about COVID-19 as a “systemic shock.” When faced with this grave and present danger, people were willing to take drastic action and accept major shifts in lifestyle and restricted movement. While climate change may not have the same immediate effect, the report notes, the imminent threat is no less real. The report advocates for climate change to be communicated with the same level of effectiveness: making the threat clear, convincing the public that there needs to be a change in behaviors, and stating clearly the actions required.
It’s time for bold ideas, and the companies that embrace big sustainability goals and powerful messaging are the ones most likely to succeed, says former L’Oreal executive Nicolas Krafft.
One company is tackling waste in a big way — specifically single-use plastics. Kat Nouri, an Iranian immigrant and founder of the houseware brand Modern Twist, realized that her expertise in silicone could help solve the problem of plastic pollution. She thought big, and developed a food-grade reusable silicone bag that could be used in the microwave, freezer, or hot water. She called her new company Stasher. The bold innovation is one way that consumers can cut back on the approximately 300 million tons of plastic waste produced each year — much of it in the form of single-use plastic. Nouri defines business success not just through sales, but impact.
And it’s not just smaller brands that have the opportunity to shift course, says Krafft. Big companies are taking the lead on sustainability, through innovative product design and packaging, through building workplaces that prioritize sustainable goals (something the pandemic and remote work necessities have helped to jump start), and through clear, persuasive messaging.
Another report from the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership looks at 10 principles for aligning a company with its sustainable purpose, drawing from leaders of four major companies: DSM, IKEA, Interface, and Unilever. It starts with a purpose statement that captures the company’s unique contribution, the report notes. For DSM it is “to create brighter lives for all.” For Unilever: “to make sustainable living commonplace.”
Nicolas Krafft notes that the purpose statement becomes the company’s guiding principle. From it, leaders can build strategy, set goals, and disclose progress in meeting those goals. Unilever, for instance, started with a Sustainable Living Plan — a goal to make sustainable living more commonplace. This expanded into Unilever Compass which embeds sustainable living into every aspect of the business. As part of this, Unilever partnered with nonprofit organizations like UNICEF and Save the Children to promote hand-washing and hygiene across the world. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, they increased their efforts — targeting a billion people in global handwashing. “This is another fantastic example of collaboration in action,” said Rebecca Marmot, chief sustainability officer of Unilever, “designed to rapidly scale solutions for those most in need.”
And company sustainability goals can lead to big changes, both across the company and the industry as a whole. As part of its Climate Take Back initiative, Interface created an innovation pathway for products. The CEO set a design challenge to create a carbon-neutral carpet tile. The innovation team designed and commercialized the new carpet tile within two years, and as the new product launched, the company announced that all products it made or sold would be carbon neutral moving forward. It’s a great example of how a company can put real momentum behind its sustainability commitments, and use its purpose to drive innovation and transformation.
Sustainability Leadership in the Time of COVID
We’ve seen how work has been transformed as a result of COVID-19, says former L’Oreal Executive Nicolas Krafft. And the lessons learned during the pandemic about adapting to a changing world are especially relevant when considering the climate change crisis. Part of this transformation, he argues, means rethinking consumption as the primary driver of economic success. In so many news stories across the globe, return to financial stability is tied to consumer spending. In China, consumers are responding — driving back up sales of luxury items in what is being termed “revenge spending.”
In the report, “The implications of COVID-19 for leadership on sustainability,” the authors note that “We need business to dematerialize consumption and help shape alternative views of prosperity linked to genuine societal needs. Consumers are already evolving, they have a voice and are increasingly using it to call for sustainability — businesses must hear this and respond, quickly.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities, but it has also provided opportunities. This is a time to reimagine how workplaces, and cities, and societies, can function and ensure a more sustainable future, says Nicolas Krafft. It involves engaging with local communities, rethinking the conventional workday to provide more flexibility, harnessing technology for good, focusing on employee wellbeing, and contributing to more livable, healthy cities and vibrant rural areas. For sustainability leaders, the time for meaningful, systemic change is now, Krafft says.
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