Is sustainability undergoing a pandemic pause?

Is sustainability undergoing a pandemic pause?
Joel Makower
Mon, 06/01/2020 - 00:00

If you were to believe the mainstream business media, there would be no question whatsoever that the twin crises of a pandemic and a recession have pretty much put the kibosh on sustainable business activity. I mean, why, amid all this human and economic carnage, should companies be focused on anything besides keeping their doors open?

Last month, for example, the Wall Street Journal published a piece ("Sustainability Was Corporate America’s Buzzword. This Crisis Changes That") proclaiming that when it comes to corporate commitments and programs, "executives have called a timeout." It said in part:

Today, every occupant of every C-suite is trying to figure out what they’re willing to throw overboard as the economic storm spawned by the pandemic is swamping their ships. Businesses that were planning to help save the world are now simply saving themselves.

Among the Journal’s proof points: General Motors put the brakes on a car-sharing program, Starbucks washed its hands of filling reusable coffee mugs and "companies have delayed sustainability reports."

Yes, we get it: No one wants to share a vehicle with strangers or refill an unwashed coffee mug during a pandemic. No question those programs should be "thrown overboard," at least temporarily.

For the first time, corporate sustainability professionals are on the bus instead of being thrown under it.

All of which, my friends, is the editorial equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard: something so dissonant with reality that it makes my head hurt. The reality is that corporate sustainability is alive and well. Unlike previous economic downturns, sustainability isn’t being jettisoned in the spirit of corporate cost-savings. It’s being kept alive as part of a pathway back to profitability.

For the first time, corporate sustainability professionals are on the bus instead of being thrown under it.

Need proof that reports of the death of sustainability are premature? Let’s begin with a few headlines:

Southern Company commits to net-zero emissions by 2050
Microsoft committed to protect more land than it operates on globally by 2025
Citigroup to halt all financing for thermal coal mining by 2030
Shell plans to achieve net-zero emissions across its product manufacturing operations
Mattel launches latest sugarcane-based products
Volvo and Daimler launch €1.2 billion fuel cell truck joint venture
General Mills commits to 100% renewable electricity by 2030

All of those happened in April.

April! The Lost Month. When jobs and economic activity essentially went poof. When more than 190,000 humans died of COVID-19 globally, nearly five times the number one month earlier, and more than 20 million Americans lost...