There are concerns that environmental efforts are going backwards while we concentrate on the battle against COVID-19. Laura King considers how sustainability professionals can continue to move forward in these unprecedented times in the second in a series of features looking at the pandemic and the environment.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, there have been many parallels drawn between the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis. Both represent a global crisis, warnings from scientists have not been fully acted on, and significant sums of money will be needed to move towards a solution. Many too, have noted that if climate change is acted on with the same urgency as the coronavirus, then we might not face the considerable consequences of a warming planet.

Despite this, there are already questions and concerns about the impact the current disruption will have on sustainability efforts — both for companies finding it difficult to cope financially, and for those that are over-run with demand. A recent survey by Edie of more than 100 sustainability professional reported that 37% of organisations were seeing investment in sustainability and energy projects postponed in light of COVID-19, with a further 34% unsure of what its influence will be.

We are also seeing an impact on a global level. The 26th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 26) has been pushed back to 2021 and the crisis is putting to the test what we consider to be essential. For example, recycling collections in many countries, including in some parts of the UK, have been put on hold as “black bag” refuse services are prioritised, and the use of single-use plastics and disposable items has risen as people look to protect their health.

Can we still make progress in the pandemic?

Undoubtably, we are currently facing unprecedented and extremely difficult times. While this means we rightly focus on the safety of our families and communities, it does not have to mean that work towards sustainability will suffer.

Indeed, if the current situation has any positives, it has shown how adaptive and creative we can be, as well as how human behaviour can change our environment for the better. As such, there are reasons why the pandemic — as difficult and awful as it is — can help deliver long-term sustainability.

Take, for example, the following outcomes.

  • Many people have adopted new working arrangements with the potential to reduce future commuter traffic.

  • Technologies have been used, tried and tested. Previously underused online solutions are now becoming accepted and normalised. In the case of technology such as virtual meetings, this can slash long-distance travel.

  • With change comes space for innovation, and within the current emergency, we are seeing people coming up with new ideas and solutions time and again. Companies that are open to change — whether through how meetings are run, to a switch in what is manufactured —will hopefully see that this is a valuable way of working, and one that could help harness the energy and adaptability needed for a more sustainable future.

  • Sustainability is not just about the environment, it is about people, too. The current crisis is helping us see inspiration in everyday actions and value our communities more, providing a better understanding of how they can be supported.

  • These difficult times might help customers see how the environment is altered by human behaviour (eg the drop in air pollution), helping them realise a new reality, which over the long-term has the potential to be better for communities and the environment.

  • Operations have been stressed and workplace structure, company value chains and procurement processes will have been tested, highlighting vulnerabilities and illuminating areas that could be improved. The current situation may have demonstrated more efficient ways of working, better questions that could be asked on supplier questionnaires, or ways to improve procurement selection processes.

  • Disaster planning is taking a front seat. Much of the work around corporate climate adaptation and resilience also calls for an ability to future-proof. The way in which an organisation is responding to the current crisis will provide an insight into how mature its disaster preparedness plans are.

  • Companies that are responding with compassion and good values will improve their image among customers and staff, clearly demonstrating that genuine corporate responsibility actions are invaluable.

Considerations for sustainability professionals

Although every company is different, there are several ways in which a sustainability professional could find some positives in this difficult time.

A note of caution: marketing or promoting environmental action on the back of COVID-19 is ill advised — many people will be facing personal challenges and this needs to be recognised. Furthermore, the task of protecting lives is foremost.

However, as this battle is fought, there are still opportunities to change things for the better. The following six ideas act as an aide to consider what could be possible.

  1. Strategise: Recognise that current plans for the year are likely to change. However, any spare time could be used to prepare, plan and consider new ideas.

  2. Spread positivity: Take examples of how the company or members of staff have acted with integrity and enthusiasm and share however is most appropriate. There have been some heart-warming examples of companies and individuals that have gone the extra mile. Not only do these stories demonstrate how the rhetoric of having a wider social and environmental purpose can be translated into action, but such stories are also invaluable for spreading positivity and inspiration.

  3. Take time for training: Now might be a good time to train staff, or review and identify knowledge gaps.

  4. See what is working: There will be work taking place at the moment that does provide some future sustainability wins, eg a move to home working, better use of online technologies or a move to local suppliers. Review how successful these changes are — perhaps conduct a survey to see what is working, what benefits staff are seeing, and what could be improved. Use these to consider how a post-COVID world could be better.

  5. Refocus attention: Look at where the company is growing or any changes to company direction, eg an increase in online sales. If these areas are not currently part of an environmental strategy, identify what could be improved. For instance, using the example of online sales, you could review whether there is the option to use more environmentally friendly packaging materials or delivery methods.

  6. Improve climate adaptation: Review climate action plans, and establish if there are lessons that could be learnt from the impact of the coronavirus crisis on adaptation planning.

Conclusion

Although fully recognising health concerns and people’s immediate needs and situations will be critical at this time, there are many positive sustainable behaviours and actions that could be sustained beyond the current crisis. These include taking a long-term view to identify changes that could have a positive impact, finding inspiration in employees or wider department-led approaches, and reviewing your organisation’s preparedness for changes brought about by the climate emergency.

Last reviewed 7 May 2020