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Walking the Talk
Are We Capable of Enacting Lasting, Positive Change After Disruption and Crisis?

The shadow of the unknown due to COVID could derail progress we’ve made toward a more sustainable future or it can motivate us to do better, faster. Now is the time for stakeholders throughout every organization to dig deep and figure out what they want their future to look like, and how they can make that happen.

There is no playbook for living through a deadly, global pandemic in 2020 — at least, I didn’t receive a copy. The uncertainty, volatility and underlying fear of living through a pandemic impacts each person uniquely; and therefore has a direct and indirect impact on the networks surrounding them: families, friends, colleagues, neighbors, community, economy and more. One day we feel okay; and the next, we feel overwhelmed with concern about the wellbeing of loved ones, the state of the economy, the lost sense of security and routine, and essentially the state of our future. 

Amongst the thickness and heaviness of the COVID-19 pandemic, we celebrated an ever-timely Earth Day milestone, which provided lessons and a platform for reflection on how each of us and our businesses have an opportunity to leverage this time for a better future: one that is more resilient, collaborative, pragmatically optimistic, successful in a more inclusive and effective manner — and dare I say, happy. That shadow of the unknown described above could derail progress we’ve made toward a more sustainable future or it can motivate us to do better, faster. Now is the time for stakeholders throughout every level of every organization to dig deep and figure out what they want their future to look like and how they can make that happen. 

Earth Day 2020 reflection

Just before the safer-at-home orders went into place across the country, I had an opportunity to sit down with Tia Nelson for an interview on the Forward, Sustainably podcast. Tia is managing director of the Outrider Foundation and daughter of Earth Day founder, former Wisconsin Governor and Senator, Gaylord Nelson. This year, we were to joyously celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day by making pivotal progress in stakeholder engagement, climate crisis solutions, inclusivity and more. Unfortunately, with the devastating impacts of COVID-19 dominating our lives, outward celebration of the day took a back seat. However, the pandemic has also forced us to turn inward to better understand our and our businesses' role as parts of a planetary system. 

Today, more than ever, our actions impact everything. No matter how confined we may feel in the moment, the act of isolating has worldwide implications. What does this mean for corporate action on social responsibility and the climate crisis? As Mariano Lozano, CEO of Danone North America, recently stated:

“Ultimately, we believe that this challenging moment can be used as a catalyst to help others recognize that the health of our people and of the planet are all interconnected. This moment is also demonstrating that collaboration is one can address these issues alone.”

While a lot of progress has been made since the 1970s — when the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and other environmentally focused regulations were put in place — we have a more complex and systemic understanding of sustainability in 2020. We are more aware of environmental injustice, the role pollution plays on chronic health issues such as asthma and heart disease, supply chain fragility in the face of disruption, the connections between socioeconomic issues and community wellbeing, and more. 

How businesses can put in the work now, to be leaders tomorrow

A simple scroll through LinkedIn, GreenBiz, Sustainable Brands, or Forbes will offer multiple perspectives and opinions on how this pandemic will change the future of business. 

  • In her reflection on a trip to Pompeii as it compares to the COVID-19 pandemic, Arianna Huffington writes, “So, the challenge before us is not merely to flatten the curve of coronavirus infections. If we are going to emerge from this crucible stronger, healthier and more resilient, we must also flatten the curves of chronic diseases, mental health problems, inequalities and climate change. And then, after we flatten the curves, we must start reversing them. Successfully navigating this pandemic doesn’t mean getting back to the status quo. It means addressing missed warning signs that defined the pre-COVID world, and creating a better one to take its place.”

  • As Jonathan Foley, Executive Director at Drawdown, writes, “We are passing through one of the most remarkable moments in recent history. It is changing the world’s health, politics, economy and environment. And it will change us, too — forever.”

Truth be told, I’m still processing the current situation and how we move forward, together and for the better. No one knows what tomorrow holds. However, I do think we can positively influence what happens next through good business. Here are some of my thoughts: 

1. Business needs to continue to recognize its power for good — and how that’s good for business.

Over the last five to ten years, we’ve watched as the role of business gained importance in defining and making progress toward a more sustainable and resilient future. We have seen the rise of B Corps as “a new kind of business that balances purpose and profit,” which essentially transforms traditional business models. 

We also recently witnessed a revised statement from Business Roundtable, expanding the focus of business to one of generating long-term value for all stakeholders, resulting in “shared prosperity and sustainability for both business and society.”

And, as the world changes, leadership is emerging from different players. This Sustainable Brands article highlights results of a recent survey examining the fact that more US consumers are looking to business, rather than government, for leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We all have a part to play in creating a better future. Business has the marketing, communication, influence, and other strengths to be a key driver and influencer for good

2. It is possible to collaborate toward a common vision. 

I’m a pragmatic optimist. There will always be differing opinions and challenges to face; however, I believe we share more than we truly recognize and we’re better capable now of systematically addressing issues of responsibility, resilience and regeneration than ever before. As John Elkington stated in a recent conversation with Joel Makower, there have been glimmers of promise of a united response to COVID-19 from businesses, communities and individuals. On some level, we have rediscovered community.  

These glimmers of collaboration, in the face of uncertainty and volatility, show that it is possible and necessary to unite behind common causes — including the climate crisis — already impacting every business and community across the planet. I’d recommend checking out Martin Nowak’s book, SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed. We’ve seen aspects of super-cooperation playing out in flattening the COVID-19 curve, which mirrors the climate crisis curve we’re all too familiar with:

Image credit: David J. Hayes, NYU Energy & Environmental Impact Center

3. The pandemic shines light on systemic issues — to solve one challenge, you must think and act comprehensively.

The outcome of an individual’s wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic is influenced by various characteristics including underlying health conditions, socioeconomic status, race, gender, whether one is able to work safer at home, access to care, access to childcare, financial flexibility, and more. We see parallels when it comes to responding to sustainability challenges. There is a clear divide in how individuals are able to respond to food shortages, geographic relocation, heat waves, volatility in markets and energy, and access to various types of care in the face of climate crisis outcomes.

As Andrew Winston recently wrote:

“Right now, we are relying on the people working in checkout roles in supermarkets, the drivers, the truck drivers, the people keeping our water systems and power going, the garbage collectors. Our very lives depend on them right now ... we are fundamentally one immune system. We’re only as strong as our weakest immune system. And it really is all connected...we’re connected deeply, and in a tactical kind of business sense, I think this means we have to rethink, in particular, supply chains — there’s a lot of discussion about this right now — and rethink what it means to be resilient as a people and as a business.”

In his conversation with Joel Makower, Elkington stated that businesses have gotten pretty good at moving incremental sustainability change (think supply chain sustainability, transparency, employee engagement). He stated the long list of challenges, though, can only effectively be addressed systemically and this is where institutions struggle. My challenge to business leaders would be to educate and practice systemic thinking to effectively address the challenges and opportunities your business faces through a lens of sustainability.

4. Don’t forget the lessons learned and lives lost.

In all the rush to get back to “normal” — commutes, food on-the-go, hurried schedules — I truly hope we do not forget those who we have lost, and lessons and experiences gained during this experience. The silent moments of vulnerability and hurt, the epiphany that although in different ways, everyone around the world, together is facing uncertainty, the ability to reflect and enjoy little moments of actual life. These moments are taken in vain if we do not grow from them. CEOs, SVPs, and other executives and business leaders who may have experienced these moments should utilize them for not only personal growth but progress for their business. The world has changed. Your customers, supply chains, marketing, and entire system have changed. My hope is that we in the business realm feel empowered and optimistic to leverage this turning point for a more responsible, resilient and regenerative future. 

There is no “normal” to go back to. There is only a path forward that we are crafting every day through our business and personal actions. Engagement, behavior change, risk identification, and mitigation are all possible. Varying opinions will not stop the climate crisis train from rolling in. We have just celebrated the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. May we use this time to the best of our abilities to learn, come together, build a better future and celebrate the 100th anniversary of Earth Day come 2070. Let’s do this.