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Ten sustainability signals for the new normal

By Amanda Powell-Smith

While the overriding requirements for sustainability do not change as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, new priorities have emerged with implications for both action and communications.

The response to the coronavirus pandemic has been incredible. Our basic instinct to help others has risen to the fore and manifested itself in many forms, from informally supporting neighbours to big businesses pivoting production lines to help the NHS.

Now the initial adrenalin is wearing off, it’s clear that this is a long game.  Normal no longer exists and sustainability leaders have a key role to play in defining the future.  We can all agree that this moment of intense and rapid change must be used to build the future we want.

Being thoughtful and useful has been our mantra for communications.  From a focus on local, human action we are seeing clear signals emerge about the new sustainability priorities for businesses.  The #buildbackbetter is gaining traction and talk of ‘saints and sinners’ through the COVID-19 crisis is unlikely to die down.

The overriding requirements for sustainability do not change as a result of the pandemic but new priorities have emerged, giving sustainability teams different challenges and opportunities to realise.

We have identified 10 sustainability signals with implications for both action and communications.  We look forward to hearing your thoughts and additions.

1. Sustainability action must be openly coupled to economic recovery

While sustainability has been moving closer to the heart of business strategy through a sense of purpose, it is often separated from communications around finance. Now, as budgets reduce and many businesses fight for survival, the return on investment in sustainability will need to be made clear in terms of pounds and pence as well as social and environmental impact. Sustainability teams need their CFO to join the CEO in championing sustainability as a creator of economic value.

2. Rapid change is possible if it is recognised as a priority

The pace of change over the last four weeks has been phenomenal, with businesses creating new product lines and setting up systems in ways that would previously have been viewed as ‘impossible’. That bravery and action can be repeated if it is underpinned by a clear case for change now; sustainability leaders have a unique opportunity to seize this can-do moment, ensure audience understanding of what and why, and introduce new ways that would previously be seen as too risky.

3. Businesses must keep demonstrating empathy

The pandemic has broken down the lines between business and charity, corporation and individual. It has highlighted the importance of care and shown the difference between businesses who have responded with empathy and those who have pulled up the drawbridge. These lines should not be redrawn as the rebuild process begins, sustainability leadership is critical to ensuring that recovery looks after everyone – not just the lucky few. Businesses need to show they are thinking people-first.

4. Public health has become a primary drive for climate action

We are in a state of heightened awareness about our health and this, combined with emerging evidence about the links between air pollution and COVID-19 death, makes public health a key motivator for change.  Directly linked to energy sources, housing, transport and food systems, sustainability leaders should be thinking now about how they can reframe their policy and communications requests in match the new public health priority.

5. People have reconnected locally and realised that less is more

From new WhatsApp street-level support groups to cycling in the empty streets, the pandemic has helped people to build new connections within their community. For businesses this is both their employees becoming neighbours and their customers reconsidering what and how to purchase products and services.  Local life has never been more important and businesses need to understand and articulate their role in both helping employees to stay connected and neighbourhoods to flourish.

6. Businesses need to act fast to embed new behaviours

Business travel – an ongoing issue for sustainability teams – has been wiped out overnight and the biggest technophobes have successfully started to use Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other solutions. While no one is saying face to face meetings are over for ever, there is a huge opportunity to permanently reduce business travel but it will require rapid action and clear communications from the moment we start to return to work. Sustainability teams should be getting behaviour change campaigns in place now.

7. Working from home has reiterated inequalities that employers cannot ignore

While many established professionals have discovered the advantages of working from home, others are desperate to get back to work. Poor quality housing, lack of space and equipment, blurred lines with childcare and housework, difficulty of team learning – particularly for juniors and interns – and the horrors of domestic violence.  There has been much discussion of how to maintain the advantages of WFH – including cost savings of smaller offices – but the advantages of going into the office must not be forgotten and sustainability leaders may need to speak out.

8. How you behave internally matters externally

Sustainability needs to run through every aspect of an organisation and unfortunately the pandemic was a reminder that many businesses are still focused on external charitable giving without looking after their colleagues.  With employee activism stronger than ever, poor internal practices will be quickly communicated externally and cause more damage to trust than any amount of philanthropy can repair.

9. The pandemic has reiterated the importance of a just transition to achieving the SDGs

The pandemic has ripped the lid off the levels of inequality and shown once again how vulnerable people and low paid workers are most at risk. While the ‘just transition’ phrase for achieving the SDGs is not new, it now needs to placed at the centre of planning to ensure change creates benefit rather than further disadvantage to people living on the edge.

10. We are all in this together and businesses are key partners

COVID-19 response has broken barriers between sectors and it will take everyone to help rebuild over the next few years.  While many businesses are good at collaborating with peers, they now need to work in partnership with charities and local communities whose funds have been decimated while service demand has increased.  Partnership is about more than money and sustainability strategy will be key to identifying where to collaborate and how best to help, ultimately turning one-off initiatives into long term positive impact.

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