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Two Steps Forward

How is the pandemic affecting the profession of sustainability?

Amid the global pandemic and economic meltdown, the profession of sustainability inside companies seems to be moving apace.

Amid the global pandemic and economic meltdown, the profession of sustainability inside companies seems to be moving apace. Yes, some budgets have been trimmed and travel eliminated, but corporate commitments and activities don’t seem to be slowing down.

At least, that’s my observation, having talked with a number of professionals over the past few weeks. To learn more, I convened a call last week with Cynthia Curtis, senior vice president of sustainability at JLL; Jeff Senne, responsible business leader at PwC; and John Davies, vice president and senior analyst at GreenBiz Group, who runs the GreenBiz Executive Network, our membership group of corporate sustainability execs.

Here is an excerpt, edited for clarity. To hear the full conversation, click here.

Joel Makower: Cynthia, let’s start with you. Other than I presume working from home, what’s been the biggest change in your job and in sustainability at your company over the past couple weeks?

Cynthia Curtis: First and foremost I would say the focus has been on our employees and how we can prop each other up and be supportive of each other. But equally, the next step is how do we do that for our clients: What are the things that they're concerned about, and how can we help them in this time?

An example is what we’ve done with Delta. We had a number of our Atlanta-based folks work with Delta to stand up a reservation call center in what was formerly an on-campus museum and an airplane hangar. We’ve stood up what’s essentially a triage hospital in the U.K. in 10 days. So those are the types of things that we’re doing directly with our clients.

In my world, where health and well-being have been an area of focus and growing interest for the last year, we held a global webinar with Dr. Joe Allen from the Harvard School of Public Health, who is doing some tremendously important work on the relationship of healthy buildings and healthy occupants and improved productivity. JLL has been a sponsor of that work.

He got on the horn with 150 folks and took us through, from a science standpoint, what’s happening. What do we need to be thinking about in terms of buildings as a line of defense? And when we start to come out of this, what are the things we need to be thinking about when you have an empty building for potentially a month or two? You’ve got to take some steps so that it’s healthy when employees come back in.

Makower: Can you give an example?

Curtis: One is that the whole ventilation system — you’ve got to be blowing that out. And, as he said, if you’ve got to spend a little bit more energy and really crank up the ventilation system to make sure that you’ve got a higher level of filtration system in place, if you need to be using more energy and spend more money in the short term to crank that up, you need to do that and you need to run it for several days.

Makower: Jeff, how about at PwC? What are you looking at now that you may not have been looking at a few weeks ago?

Jeff Senne: I think some of the interesting things from a sustainability standpoint are at the intersection of social and environmental. As we’ve gone to this shelter-in-place and we’ve closed our offices, we acted early to get people off the planes and out of the offices and at home.

We were lucky because we really spent a lot of time and energy on the technology infrastructure of the firm over the past years as well as the digital acumen of our staff. We have a $3 billion investment around the globe in digital upscaling for ourselves, our clients and the community. We’ve moved to this virtual connectivity quite well, so that has been a bright spot.

This is not unlike in some ways a hurricane, except that it’s a hurricane that lasts for an indeterminate period of time and affects the entire nation at the same time.
Makower: So you’re talking about telework catching on finally, or some other kind of changes?

Senne: Yes, that’s exactly right. As the business community is essentially grounded, what does business as usual look like when the economy and marketplace open up again?

I think there’s always going to be a call for travel of some sort in businesses like ours. But does that return to the same as it was even just months ago? I doubt it. I don’t think that’s going to happen, and in some ways nor should it. But to provide healthy alternatives would be really great from a health and wellness perspective as well as environmental sustainability perspective. And if we can do that at the same levels of excellence that we’re known for now, all the better.

Makower: John, I know you’ve been in touch with dozens of corporate sustainability professionals over the past month and are hosting a weekly virtual happy hour that’s convening a number of them. What’s your assessment so far of the impact of the pandemic on the profession of sustainability?

John Davies: I’d say that this is brought to you by the letter "S." I think a lot of sustainability people came out of [environmental, health and safety] and have safety underneath their remit. I’ve talked to a number of people who have gone all-in on their role in changing practices in factories so that there’s physical distancing, deciding where to deploy resources.

Jeff and I have talked about in the past that there’s going to be a greater focus on social when we come out of this. I think the S is going to get even more of a spotlight shown on it.

The thing you did refer to that has been really fun is a GreenBiz Executive Network happy hour, and that really came from my talking to Cynthia and Jeff and about a half dozen other executives to find out what they were doing. They were all having check-in calls with their team, not focused on a particular goal or initiative, but just a health and wellness checkup to say "How are you doing? How are things? Are you all right? Is there anything that you need?" So we have started that as well, and I would say that’s probably something I would recommend to anybody’s sustainability team.

Makower: Do you see that the role of a sustainability executive in a large company has been elevated as a result of this?

Curtis: It’s interesting, Joel. If you look back at the last significant downturn we had, for many of us at that time it set us back in terms of our ability to get the attention of the executive team or to move forward on any kind of significant goals. The sense was it’s just going to cost us money.

I think what we’re seeing here is an example of just how far we’ve come as a profession and our push to be more embedded in the business. We are well down the path of embedding sustainability and sustainability considerations throughout our business. ESG as an area of interest from our shareholder investor community has never been stronger.

So there isn’t a going back. We’re focused more now, obviously, on what this means for our clients, what this means for our business. All of us are. And people are looking to us more so than we certainly have seen in the past.

Makower: Jeff, do you agree?

Senne: I couldn’t agree more. We’ve had longstanding relationships with nonprofits in the education, food security and healthcare space that couldn’t be more important today in a wide variety of ways. We have a $320 million youth education commitment we call Access Your Potential and part of that has been virtual volunteering. We spent the last couple years working on how to stand up virtual volunteering and developing relationships with nonprofit partners that provide those opportunities for our staff. That is paying huge dividends right now.

The work we’ve done with Feeding America for years and just made a large grant to them recently and have done a lot of pro bono work with them and direct relief and others that have really been hugely important to us.

I think there’s a sustainability balance sheet that if you’ve been investing in embedding this, you’re probably going to come out all right.
This is not unlike in some ways a hurricane, except that it’s a hurricane that lasts for an indeterminate period of time and affects the entire nation at the same time. That might be a terrible analogy, but from a sustainability or corporate responsibility standpoint, it’s many of the same methods by which you invest the firm’s resources and look to solve the problem because hurricanes can shut down an entire region in the same way that this is happening.

Makower: John, I know it’s early days still, but what’s your prognostication of how all of this could impact the role and responsibilities of a sustainability executive inside companies as we come out of this?

Davies: I think Jeff and Cynthia both have this right. If you’ve embedded sustainability, that means that you’ve been investing in it and you’ve been making a business decision to do this. So just like you see companies who have strong balance sheets are probably going to come out of this okay, I think there’s a sustainability balance sheet that if you’ve been investing in embedding this, you’re probably going to come out all right.

But I think one area where I’m a little bit concerned is more around what the impact will be on a number of the NGOs, especially the environmental NGOs, because so much of their work actually complements what companies are doing. And if those start going away, I think there will be an impact on how much the corporate sustainability folks can get things done.

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