The Pandemic & the Planet: How Companies Are Rethinking Sustainability

COVID-19 has changed the way businesses think about climate change and sustainability. Photo by Zbynek Burival.

As part of an ongoing series that examines the rapid changes to our world and way of life, Artemis Ward is gathering thoughts and analysis from leaders and experts to shed light on what’s already happening and offer insight on what’s to come.

June 23, 2020
By Colin Moffett

The COVID-19 pandemic has paralyzed global economies and upended daily life worldwide. Millions have been infected around the world and more than 120,000 people in the United States have died. And for now, it appears there may be no “second wave” to the virus; rather, one long sustained wave that won’t abate for a while.

But if there is a silver lining to the last few months, we’ve been reminded just how acutely human behavior affects the natural world around us and what business and societal opportunities may lie on the other side of the crisis. For instance, the Himalayas in India are now visible for the first time in decades. The notoriously smoggy skies in L.A. are now clear, too, as is the 101. Bicycles have become a hot commodity. Local food supplies dependent on exports are now seeing the value of local harvesting.

And while these phenomena have in some cases been a literal breath of fresh air, the questions for businesses and organizations around the world now become: What will we learn? How will our processes change? What matters to us?

To help answer some of these questions, Artemis Ward recently caught up with Kate Gaertner, founder and CEO at TripleWin Advisory. Gaertner has two decades of experience working in corporate sustainability, has led marketing teams at XM Satellite Radio, Ziff Davis Media, and Time Inc., along with founding her own women’s activewear lifestyle brand, OMALA. She is also the author of the forthcoming book, The I in Climate Change.

Below is an edited and condensed conversation with Gaertner and Artemis Ward co-founder and managing partner, Colin Moffett.

How will the COVID-19 pandemic affect businesses’ sustainability efforts?

This stop-and-restart of the economy, it’s allowed companies to rethink their priorities to say, ‘You know what, we’ve been so focused on growth, and increasing market share, that we have deprioritized critical areas of our business … COVID-19’s been really frustrating. But sustainability is important. We really should put measures in place.’

When you’re a business owner, you have to have time to do nothing. Then, you can think creatively about how to progress and move forward. I think a lot of these big organizations have just had their foot on the accelerator. And [the pandemic] has given them an opportunity to actually sit back and ask the question, ‘What is important to us?’

Is this the dawn of a New Era?

Yes, but in this recovery period, most businesses have to focus on their core product offerings. And it’s just the nature of being a “going concern” business. That said, corporate sustainability is a social justice issue. Climate change is a significant social justice challenge. In developing countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, those countries are dealing with two crises: sea-level rise from climate change, and plastic pollution from externalized waste streams. Covid-19 is also a social justice concern. Marginalized communities are being disproportionally affected. Collectively, as a society, we’ve hit a significant moment in time where social justice inequities must adequately be addressed in a transparent, meaningful way.

Why not have companies measure their carbon contributions now, and then begin to set reduction targets to support climate change mitigation?

But what’s really been true in this acute COVID-19 health and economic crisis is that people and organizations that emphasized shorter supply chains or localized suppliers have proved to be more resilient. They have been able to flex their supplier relationships to modify the output to meet the short-term reductions in market demand. We’ve heard a lot about the waste and material reduction benefits of 3-D manufacturing. A move to additive manufacturing makes a compelling case. But so does further localizing one’s value chain.

The benefits are many: quicker market agility, greater flexibility, co-investment in a vibrant local economy as well as value chains fundamentally being closer to market. These benefits help aid a more efficient, less carbon-intensive corporate supply chain. There is also an opportunity to re-baseline the “new normal” we are living — telecommuting workforces, flexible work schedules, and (little-to-no) business travel — by calculating carbon footprints based on this new reality.

How has this changed our baseline thinking?

We have seen in various regions and cities around the world significant drops in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions during the earliest weeks of Covid-19. San Francisco reported a 30% reduction in its CO2 levels over a three-week period in March. NOAA has noticed in China a 65% reduction of levels of nitrous oxide (N2O) during the pandemic, due to significant reductions in commuting and transportation.

So, the reality is, GHG reductions can be achieved really fast in dramatic fashion. Why not have companies measure their carbon contributions now, at this time, and then begin to set meaningful reduction targets to support climate change mitigation? Let’s get our creative juices in motion again and rethink new business models, all in service of this greater, collective good.

After all, do most of us believe there is a business “normal” to which to go back? There is not. We are moving toward a new situation. Life and business are going to be fluid for the next two to three years.

Given that, how are you counseling clients over the next six months and beyond?

I’m focused on communicating two things: One, climate change has to be worked on for 30 to 50 years. It’s not a one-and-done kind of thing. Yes, we’re taking a pause, and yes, GHG reductions globally are going down. But when we restart our economies, if we don’t think about how we do that, then we’re just going to default to emissions levels pre-coronavirus. We have to keep our eye on the ball at all times.

The other opportunity I am communicating with companies is around engaged workforces. It’s building the sustainability muscle of companies’ most ardent brand ambassadors — employees — so they can be the agents of change. Disseminating knowledge, educating stakeholders that are concerned and want to take action but don’t know how, and providing them the tools to be empowered, will catalyze the sustainability efforts of businesses and individuals alike.


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