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What are the lessons for CSOs from multiple, concurrent crises?

Sustainability veterans proffer what they've learned — and expect to see.

Corporate superhero


During the past 18 months, we struggled to adapt to living with a global pandemic, our growing awareness of human rights violations and systemic racism, economic despair, divisive challenges to democracy and unprecedented weather events heralding the global climate crisis.

Companies in America and around the world are engaging in new policy and political arenas as employees are demanding changes and global finance began to consider climate impacts.

We learned to work differently, whether from home or with masks, shields and social distance. Governments issued unprecedented levels of cash and other relief, with advocates demanding that we build back in new and better ways. In the United States and some other parts of the world, the end of the pandemic and recession may be within our grasp, even as these crises rage in other regions.

In this article, we hear from our Sustainability Veterans who share their views on what we learned that will help us to build a more just, sustainable and equitable world.

  • Four of our members encourage us to continue to practice the new ways of working that we learned during the pandemic.
Ellen Weinreb, sustainability and ESG recruiter, founder of Weinreb Group and co-founder of Sustainability Veterans:

Navigating back to the office is a power play between employers and employees. Employers value the in-person more than the employees who appreciate the remote option. A hybrid model should include the best of both worlds — more remote options than pre-COVID and a recommitment to the value of in-person work that had been taken for granted pre-COVID.

Sarah Severn, principal at Sarah Severn Consulting and former senior director of systems innovation, sustainable business and innovation at Nike:

The pandemic propelled us to conduct meetings and conferences in a virtual format, and technology evolved quickly to accommodate this, saving many time-consuming, greenhouse gas-emitting flights. In many cases, events became more accessible because costs were dramatically reduced. Aviation is one of the fastest-growing sources of emissions and solutions are still a way off. The question we should ask ourselves as sustainability professionals and businesses: Is that travel really necessary or productive?

Dawn Rittenhouse, former director of sustainable development at Dupont Company:

While we have always understood that travel creates a huge environmental impact, we told ourselves that as sustainability leaders, it was necessary. In the past 18 months, we learned that we can connect and drive progress without always traveling to make it happen. I hope that as we restore some travel, we also use our learnings to demonstrate that we can "walk the talk" and accomplish our sustainability objectives using lower impact approaches.

Cecily Joseph, former vice president of corporate responsibility at Symantec, chair of the Net Impact board of directors and expert in residence at the Presidio Graduate School:

Maybe I need to get out more, but there is nothing better than a free virtual sustainability/CSR conference or event. I hope we figure out how to continue to find ways to make these incredible learning and networking opportunities available to a broader group of participants. Speakers and attendees both benefit when we democratize the way these conferences are delivered. I believe this more inclusive experience will produce more impactful shared outcomes.

  • Two members highlight the need to focus on concrete actions to bring corporate pronouncements into fruition.
Trisha Thompson, lawyer, former chief responsibility officer at Dell Technologies:

Companies must stop doing "business as usual." Many companies have signed up to net-zero carbon emissions but are light on how they are going to get there. Offsets seem to be pretty popular, but that is not enough. We must rethink the circularity of our business models and adjust real time. Customers will demand this increasingly as unprecedented weather events continue to rise. Companies must also take new approaches to address systemic racism and diversity and inclusion. The same old training sessions are not enough. Companies need to tie financial rewards or penalties for failure to make progress in these areas.

Kathrin Winkler, former chief sustainability officer for EMC, co-founder of Sustainability Veterans and editor-at-large for GreenBiz:

While last year’s protests expanded the dialogue on race and racism, with candid conversations occurring between coworkers, friends and families, support is now dissipating among white Americans. Meanwhile, some corporations that had taken stands on highly visible issues have backed off since the headlines faded.

Corporations must instead work harder to dismantle systemic injustices and stop investing their political and financial capital in ways that contradict their professed commitments to a just and sustainable future.

  • Finally, two Sustainability Veterans remind us that our profession holds both the skills and the responsibility to bridge differences and forge collective action:
Bart Alexander, principal at Alexander & Associates LLC, adviser at Plan C Advisors and former chief responsibility officer for Molson Coors:

In our responses to multiple crises, we learned that we are more resilient and fragile than we ever imagined. We exposed our interdependence and our fragmentation. How might our experiences of loss, adaptation and learning anchor a way forward? How may we create inclusive venues for honest exchanges about climate, justice and inequality? Corporate sustainability professionals can and must cultivate these courageous conversations — among internal and external stakeholders — to imagine and effect the bold actions required.

Mark Buckley, former vice president of sustainability at Staples and founder of One Boat Collaborative:

Many of us had lost daily connections to nature, our neighbors and the humanity of "community". During the last 18 months, we learned to reconnect with nature, our food and the needs of neighbors. We learned that while technology can help, it is no substitute for a handshake, a hug or cup of coffee. We have to stop talking to and do more listening with to build understanding and empathy to build back better.

About Sustainability Veterans: We are a group of professionals who have held leadership roles in the world of corporate responsibility. We are exploring new ways to further engage and make a difference by bringing together our collective intellectual, experiential, emotional and social capital — independent from any individual company — to help the next generation of sustainability leaders to achieve success.

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