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Our Insights 14 May 2020

Sustainability Professionals Are Crisis-Ready

By Sarah Hansen

©Matthew Henry on Unsplash

In these turbulent times, we have been receiving a lot of questions about whether sustainability initiatives have or will need to take a back seat to COVID-19’s immediate threats.

While necessarily focused on the virus, people also fear possible slippage in sustainability terms, from introducing reusable bag bans and increases in non-recyclable single-use items at the consumer level, to postponing materiality assessments or sustainability goal and strategy roll-outs at companies. This has caused many to ask exactly what the future looks like for corporate sustainability practitioners and teams. Are they relevant in this moment?

We challenge the premise that sustainability has been or needs to be sidelined during this crisis. Sustainability is physical and mental health, community support, and ensuring access to basic human needs, like food, medicine and education; it encompasses R&D and innovation for better health outcomes as well as adapting business models and adjusting supply chains; it is resilience. In short, sustainability — and the systems thinking, adaptation and ingenuity it requires — is everything we need in the face of this global challenge.

Sustainability skillsets: Exactly what is needed

Corporate sustainability professionals have widely varying backgrounds and are used to wearing many hats. Their expertise is helping solve the challenges of COVID-19, enabling companies to better support employees and society. Sustainability skills of particular value now include:

Systems thinking: Sustainability practitioners are used to thinking about how certain actions will affect a range of outcomes. Their job is to think about the impact a company has on everything from employee development to climate change. When tasked with addressing certain topics, they consider how proposed actions and initiatives will affect not only the issues at hand, but a whole range of interconnected issues as well. In other words, they take a systems approach, which can be particularly useful when facing complex challenges like those posed by COVID-19.

Scenario analysis: Consideration of multiple long-term scenarios and the challenges and opportunities each might pose a company is a familiar practice in the sustainability space, both for climate change scenarios and other areas of potential impact. Sustainability professionals can apply this skill to other areas of business risk to better prepare for future pandemics, disasters, and supply and workplace disruptions, enhancing business resilience and continuity.

Cross-functional coordination: Within their own organizations, sustainability professionals engage with almost every other functional area in order to set strategies and goals, and to collect evidence of impact and annual progress on commitments. They liaise and coordinate with finance, human resources, communications/marketing/public relations, legal, procurement and more. They are used to socializing agendas up, down and across organizations, a type of cross-functional engagement that should prove valuable to companies dealing with the pandemic.

External partnerships and collaborations: Sustainability practitioners often manage issues that are bigger than any one company can address alone — issues that affect whole sectors, supply chains, or even society writ large. Such issues often require unique partnerships, collaborations and/or investment mechanisms to solve (for example, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s CE100 Network, the Closed Loop Fund or the AMR Industry Alliance). Whether pre-competitive or with academic, NGO or government agencies, sustainability professionals are accustomed to building and participating in partnerships designed to tackle the most complex problems. The ability to seek out and work with diverse partners may position companies to solve COVID-19 challenges in collaborative ways.

In short, sustainability — and the systems thinking, adaptation and ingenuity it requires — is everything we need in the face of this global challenge.

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Sustainability = greater resilience

This pandemic has highlighted the need for long-term thinkers who can contribute to risk management and strategy conversations from a systems perspective that takes into account all of the interdependencies in play. Companies looking to thrive during and after this pandemic will do well to leverage the expertise of sustainability professionals. The diversity of sustainability skills and thought will help companies think through risks and responses and let them react quickly to opportunities.

Surviving and thriving through COVID and after

If you’re a sustainability professional, think about how the vast skills and competencies forged in your career can be of use now. The tenacity with which you pursue a more just and inclusive society and your passion for the environment is needed now more than ever

If you’re a company leader or executive, planning for future scenarios, understanding obstacles from an interconnected systemic point of view, thinking about long-term effects, taking into account reputational impacts, considering both risk and opportunity, and forging partnerships internally and externally are all practices sustainability professionals know well. Lean on them in ways you may not have thought to before.

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