Skip to main content

A tightrope walk ahead for corporate sustainability managers

The job has never been easy, it will become even more challenging during economically and socially turbulent times. 

Tightrope walker

Amidst numerous uncertainties surrounding post-COVID corporate climate, one thing is certain: Sustainability managers will face multifaceted challenges. 

Many could face budget cuts, even as their stakeholders expect them to ramp up sustainability efforts and seize this unique "opportunity" to initiate fundamental corporate transformations. Many may find their companies’ post COVID-19 business strategies are no longer aligned with ongoing or planned sustainability programs. The job of a sustainability manager never has been easy, it will become even more challenging during economically turbulent times. 

After the 2008 economic recession, I led a study to show that companies generally scaled down sustainability programs during periods of lowered financial performance, but they did so rather selectively. This study also shows that the extent of scaling down is contingent upon the level of economic turbulence. The latter issue is especially critical in the current context because the COVID-19 has inflicted turbulence on economic systems at a deeper level and more pervasive scale than previous downturns have, at least in the recent history. 

I believe that this is a time for sustainability managers to act with foresight. They should not only concern themselves with broad sustainability goals, but they also should be active partners in helping their companies recover from economic hardships. 

Sustainability managers should also be active partners in helping their companies recover from economic hardships. 

This ambidextrous approach will help them garner more trust for sustainability units within their companies, which in turn will enhance internal support for corporate sustainability programs in the long term. Here are five ways (call them 5Cs) that together can help sustainability managers act ambidextrously: 

1. Focus on communities

These are times of community-level distress, manifesting in multiple ways. Community well-being is the most salient of all concerns that companies must attend to as part of their sustainability programs.

Many companies are doing it through corporate philanthropy; but engaging in community-oriented projects more directly would provide companies with visibility, goodwill, improved employees pride and enhanced societal trust. 

Community involvement will be the yardstick with which stakeholders will measure companies’ sustainability and social responsibility performance in the post COVID-19 recovery period and well beyond it. 

2. Develop coalitions with other businesses

This may be a promising approach for companies to engage in community-oriented projects. A critical part of community involvement should be the support for small and micro businesses in the area. 

Initiatives taken by grocery chains, such as Publix, can play a critical role in providing much-needed support to save farmer markets and small farmers throughout the world. Local sourcing and purchasing can help revitalize small businesses and are well aligned with broad sustainability goals. Indeed, local sourcing also can uniquely demonstrate companies’ commitments to foster circular economies. 

3. Display creativity

This is truer than ever. As goes the adage, "If you want creativity, take a zero off your budget. If you want sustainability, take off two zeroes." 

The COVID-19 outbreak has removed those two zeroes for many companies. Sustainability managers could draw on such concepts as frugal innovation to spur outside-the-box thinking and to develop and execute sustainability programs that actually help in cutting cost, reducing waste and projecting companies as originators of cool, simple solutions to complex problems. 

To clarify, it is not time to stall climate initiatives; but it is time to more vigorously engage with stakeholders who have urgent claims.

Workplace risk mitigation will be a priority for companies as economic reopening starts. Innovation in this area is already happening — combining smart scanning technologies, drone-enabled deliveries and artificial intelligence — but such high tech-high cost innovations will not be accessible to all companies. 

Frugal yet effective sanitization, I believe, is the most important area in which sustainability experts can provide critical input. Keeping sanitization costs low while ensuring the safety of customers and employees alike is indeed a litmus test for creativity and innovation: Backed with expertise in design thinking, safety norms and customer expectations, sustainability managers are among the best positioned to advise companies on how to effectively handle sanitization in the most frugal way.

4. Show genuine concern

A core tenet of sustainability is a concern for all. These are periods of immense hardships. Indeed, bigger threats of climate change loom at us, and sustainability managers ought to not take eyes off that big issue. Yet the open wounds need urgent treatment.

It is exactly the time for sustainability managers to display concern for all and live up to their own ideals. Sustainability entails integrated thinking: The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are interlinked, after all. 

It is an immense opportunity for sustainability managers to institutionalize integrative thinking in their companies and cultivate fraternity across functional units. By showing empathy for communities, employees and customers, sustainability managers will further ingrain stakeholder orientation within their companies. 

To clarify, it is not time to stall climate initiatives; but it is time to more vigorously engage with stakeholders who have urgent claims and earn their trust and support for future sustainability initiatives that they may not otherwise support. 

5. Get everyone on board with the changes

Finally, sustainability managers will need to make their co-workers on sustainability teams comfortable with the adjustments in their corporate sustainability programs.

Co-workers’ discomfort may emanate from their fearing job loss as they might perceive adjustments as curtailments. This discomfort also may emanate from a perceived value-misalignment as some co-workers simply may not value new approaches to sustainability. 

Keeping up the spirits of team members and instilling in them the confidence that theirs is a critical role in helping the company recover from financial hardships is a new and important task for sustainability managers. Sharing with sustainability co-workers a short-, medium- and long-term vision of strategy will help sustainability managers keep co-workers motivated and creative. 

Clearly, times are difficult. But these are exactly the times when the relevance of sustainability thinking will be put to test. After all, sustainability is about resilience and adaptation: Sustainability managers will have to show both in the coming months. 

More on this topic

More by This Author