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It can be hard to stay positive when the news cycle is focused on the widespread repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic. For many, the current crisis has been particularly challenging. However, for every dark cloud there is a silver lining, and opportunities for change have also come from these difficult times. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged innovation and change ; a perfect storm that has shaken up engrained business practices and reinvented whole business models. However, as things slowly return to ‘normal’ with shuttered businesses opening their doors and workforces relocating back to the office, we must remember the lessons that we have learned from this pandemic and ensure these valiant efforts are not erased. 

‘Cosmetic’ CSR initiatives are no longer enough

The environment has played centre stage during the coronavirus pandemic, with the effects of global lockdowns quickly realised; unprecedented restrictions on travel, work and industry has meant that nature has visibly started to bounce back. It is estimated that global carbon emissions from the fossil fuel industry could fall by a record 2.5 billion tonnes this year – a reduction of 5% and the biggest drop in demand for fossil fuels to date.

We cannot afford to undo all this progress. Collectively, businesses large and small have proven that they are capable of transformation – vastly reducing their reliance on unsustainable and unethical practices. Disruptions to global supply chains, for instance, have meant that some companies have had to source their products locally. This dramatic shift has not only meant a cut to their carbon footprint, but has also helped to support local communities through the worst of the crisis. 

Meanwhile, companies that once insisted on upholding a traditional, 9-to-5, office-based working environment might be reconsidering their policies. If staff have found ways to work productively from home, a full return to the office might not be necessary. Indeed, many businesses are exploring a future of remote work as a real possibility going forward – with Twitter most notably making the decision to allow its staff to work from home “forever”. The environmental costs of commuting and running an office space take a huge toll, and a global green working revolution might truly be on the cards.  

Some companies have gone so far as to introduce new products and services to offer some relief to those on the frontline of the pandemic. Brewdog stepped up to the challenge of tackling the shortfall of hand sanitiser, and began manufacturing the product at their distillery. Since then, production has been running around the clock to get bottles to those in need. Efforts like these will be remembered by consumers long into the future, and demonstrate a commitment to supporting initiatives that make a real impact. 

On the flipside, the pandemic has also taught businesses that they cannot “greenwash” their role in society, and must instead be transparent about their commitment to CSR initiatives. This should serve as a red flag to companies that continue to employ virtue signalling in the place of real action. It has exposed fundamental weaknesses within business operations that had previously been masked by loud yet unfulfilled commitments to upholding ethical and environmental standards. The pitfalls and inconsistencies of supply chains have been drawn into the open, as have exploitative practices.

What happens next? 

The coronavirus pandemic could and should ignite a greener future. Indeed, there is a strong business case for learning from the pandemic and using this new found knowledge to rethink old strategies and adopt truly sustainable approaches. But while the crisis has generated short-term headwinds for sustainability, these efforts must be compounded to ensure they do not go to waste. 

Business leaders have been given a glimpse of the dangers of not adapting their practices, and the pandemic has shown them how they can tackle an expanding range of environmental and social challenges. In the months and years ahead, hopefully the lessons learned will be integrated into everyday business practices to build the momentum and deliver truly valuable CSR efforts forever.


Liza Kinnear

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Image produced by Stanley Sagov.

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