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What happens to corporate sustainability amid the COVID-19 crisis? Some reflections

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During the run-up to Earth Day, the GreenBiz editorial team is usually deluged with incoming news alerts from the stalwarts of sustainability and opportunistic consumer products companies touting eco-centric wares.

This year, the tone is markedly subdued as companies process the far-reaching impacts and implications of the COVID-19 pandemic and focus most outbound marketing communications on immediate responses to that urgent crisis. That doesn’t mean substantial and serious work isn’t happening behind the scenes.

PepsiCo, as an example, proceeded with its plan to adopt the United Nations Business Ambition for 1.5 Degrees C pledge. "I have to make sure that even as we operate business in the new reality — or the short-term reality — my job is to make sure we don’t lose sight of the sustainability agenda and climate change we’re facing," PepsiCo CSO Simon Lowden told me when we chatted last week. (Read more in my Q&A.)

What’s more, 70-plus companies this week officially became certified under the ClimateNeutral labeling system by completing a carbon footprinting exercise and buying offsets to counteract their impact.

More are waiting in the wings, but the economic disruption triggered by social distancing measures meant to combat the spread of coronavirus delayed the verification process but no signatories have stepped back from their commitment outright, according to Climate Neutral CEO Austin Whitman. "Even under challenging business conditions, our first group of brands has stayed committed to solving the climate crisis by directing precious resources toward reducing and offsetting their emissions," he said.  

Those working toward the designation include known brands such as Allbirds and Kickstarter, but the large majority of those working with Climate Neutral are companies with sales of $5 million to $50 million that largely have been underserved with the reporting frameworks used by some of the world’s largest companies, Whitman said.

So what happens to corporate sustainability plans during this period, when companies are either shut down or at least focused on other things? 

"For some sectors, like retail and hospitality, efforts toward long-term sustainability strategies will naturally slow down to allow companies to pivot to more immediate resource management objectives," said Mathias Lelievre, CEO of consultancy Engie Impact. "For companies that are shutting down, it’s imperative to ensure that resource bases are covered —  waste pick-up frequency needs to be adjusted, and the lights and water must be turned off. For companies in other sectors, like finance companies, this could potentially allow more time to focus on sustainability, as they are not working on the immediate day-to-day as much. Moving forward, we actually see sustainability as a lever to support organizations as they rebound from this period, a tool to help companies save money."

We reached out to dozens of companies, including members of the GreenBiz executive network, to ask them to consider that question. Read on for the responses we received, lightly edited for clarity. We greatly appreciate their transparency.

Jane Prior, All Market

All Market

(Owner of beverage brands Vita Coco, Ever & Ever and RUNA)

Jane Prior, CMO

When faced with corporate adversity, it’s tempting to slash or reduce focus on initiatives that drive towards longer-term goals, like sustainability or social impact. However, these things are embedded in our organization — from how our supply chain is built to how we make decisions — by trusting our gut and doing what feels right for our business, our customers and the communities where we source our coconuts. These core values are integral to how we operate and allow us to continue to prioritize sustainability initiatives and programs.

Our business is also benefitting from consumers stocking up on healthy pantry essentials. We felt the right thing to do was to reinvest $1 million of those pandemic profits to hunger relief organizations Feeding America and No Kid Hungry. We recognize that we’re fortunate to continue these efforts, but that doesn’t mean that’s what’s right for everyone. The important thing is to realize that while you might have to pivot your efforts, you can still make an impact big or small, depending on what’s right for you.

Kara Hurst, Amazon

Amazon

Kara Hurst, Vice President, Head of Worldwide Sustainability

Our teams worldwide are working around the clock to ensure we continue to provide essential services during the COVID-19 pandemic. People are depending on us, and we’ve taken significant actions to protect the health and safety our customers and employees — and to support the local communities and businesses where we live, work and operate. 

As always, sustainability still remains a top priority. With air pollution levels dropping because of the global shifts in social distancing behaviors, it offers a glimpse into what a low-carbon future might look like, and a moment to think about this reset. 

At Amazon, we’re staying focused on our long-term commitment to become net zero carbon — and encouraging others to join the fight by signing The Climate Pledge.

Mariano Lozano, Danone North America

Danone North America

Mariano Lozano, CEO

As a food and beverage company — one of our nation’s critical infrastructure industries — we’ve always believed we have an important responsibility to use our business as a force for good.

And specifically, as the world’s largest Certified B Corporation, environmental and social responsibility are built into how we run our business. We are motivated to do the right thing all of the time. We are always working to balance short-term profits and results for long-term social and environmental implications, including and especially during a pandemic.

As we manage through this unique time, our focus is first and foremost on the safety and well-being of our employees, food safety and security of supply, and business continuity plans so we can ensure our ability to bring our range of plant-based and dairy foods and beverages to the people who need them. And in parallel, we’re doing even more to ensure that our employees and our broader communities are supported. For example, we’ve donated $1.5 million to local food banks and food rescue organizations to help people facing food insecurity, and we’ve rolled out enhanced benefits for our hourly workers including a pay premium, paid sick leave and childcare support.

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.
It’s also more important than ever that we take care of all of our partners, including our 770-plus farmer partners who are going above and beyond right now to keep North America fed. We have long-term relationships with many of these farmers and suppliers — we know them, we know their families. Keeping these partnerships strong and minimizing pressure during a crisis (for example, by the nature of our "cost-plus" model for our dairy farmers, which protects them from volatile market swings) is also highly relevant to our corporate sustainability work. Our Horizon Organic commitment to become carbon positive by 2025 is rooted in these farmer partnerships and so it’s critical that we take care of these partners.

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 critical — whether we are facing the crisis of a pandemic or the crisis of climate change, coalitions, public-private partnerships and other meaningful collaborations are necessary to tackle these challenges. At the end of the day, no one can address these issues alone.

Mary Jane Melendez, General Mills

General Mills

Mary Jane Melendez, Chief Sustainability and Social Impact Officer

Sustainability remains an important focus area for General Mills. While a large majority of our employees are currently working from home, we continue to advance our core sustainability efforts with our partners globally.

Earlier this year, we launched our Kansas Regenerative Agriculture pilot with 24 wheat farmers and that work is well under way. As is our pilot with 45 oat farmers across North Dakota, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. We are committed to this work and moving things forward even in this difficult time. 

Andy Romjue, Hoffmaster Foodservice

Hoffmaster Foodservice

Andy Romjue, President

In wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, foodservice operators are adjusting to a new normal and sustainability is likely not at the forefront. To stay afloat, those still in operation are focusing on safe and sanitary takeout meals and have options to consider.

While the easy choice is to use polystyrene containers and plastic straws and bags, those options are not eco-friendly, do not always provide the best user experience and can take over 500 years to break down. Not all foodservice products have a sanitary and sustainable alternative; however, some exist.

For instance, earth-friendly bagasse or cardboard takeout containers are durable and can be microwaved, wrapped paper straws allow for sanitary serving, and paper takeout bags provide a sturdy base so package contents don’t tip or spill in transit.

Though sustainability may not be top of mind today, earning consumers’ share of wallet is — and sustainable options can provide a more positive and memorable takeout experience while helpfully impacting our planet.

Barry Parkin, Mars

Mars Inc.

Barry Parkin, Chief Procurement and Sustainability Officer

The global pandemic has immersed us in a situation unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. The most important priority right now is to limit the spread of the virus while ensuring the safety of our associates and the communities we rely upon. 

The response to COVID-19 has demonstrated that we do have the capacity to act urgently and radically to address the world’s biggest societal threats. It’s crucial that we continue to change the trajectory of this pandemic while also working together to reduce the risks of future shocks to our shared global system from issues such as climate change.

Patrick Flynn, Salesforce

Salesforce

Patrick Flynn, Vice President, Sustainability

The crisis we’re facing is forcing us to focus and prioritize based on our values and our stakeholders. Climate action remains important. We have all noticed and heard stories of how our air and water are cleaner, but it is caused by a health crisis and an economic crisis. The fact that we see environmental gains in times of economic trouble is not good. It shows us how much we have to fix to ensure our health, our economy and our planet are all marching forward together.

We must emerge from this health and economic crisis with a newfound pace and ambition for addressing the climate emergency. We can all continue our conversations and momentum towards climate action with new tactics, while keeping a keen eye on how we can address the crisis at hand. Salesforce is convening conversations about this topic with other sustainability leaders, and while we won't have all the answers, by bringing people together in an open and trusted dialogue we hope that collectively we can find the right next steps to take.

We can all continue our conversations and momentum towards climate action with new tactics, while keeping a keen eye on how we can address the crisis at hand.
I'm proud that Salesforce made the choice to close offices a week before San Francisco made the decision to close all offices. The company's leadership saw into the future thanks to scientific data and acted based on a trust in what was inevitable. In that way there is a link between COVID and climate change and how we can best support our employees, partners and customers during this time. In both scenarios, leaders must look months, years and even decades into the future, but call for bold action today. We must stand in the future and look back on today with a different perspective and act in a way that will make our future selves proud.

Ideally, this global captivation and collective action will create greater comfort among all of us in looking forward and accepting the gravity of issues such as climate change. My hope is we emerge from this with greater collaboration, compassion, skill and buy-in to do today what we know tomorrow is demanding of us all.

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