Why companies are still pursuing sustainability goals

During the economic downturn, companies are looking closely at cost savings from doing good

October 26, 2020

At the onset of the pandemic, companies hit the pause button on sustainability initiatives to focus on their people's immediate health and wellness.

But they have since re-established momentum, driven by cost-saving opportunities and competitive advantages.

"At the very beginning of COVID – 19 there was a slowdown in activity on sustainability while everyone in the world was getting their bearings, but it came back fairly quickly," says Mindy S. Lubber, CEO of Ceres, speaking recently at the Bloomberg Green Festival. "When you have something the size of the pandemic, you see how it can disrupt human lives, resources, the economy — it was the perfect example of how climate change will disrupt our system in many of the ways COVID - 19 has."

Take the Climate Neutral labeling system, which over 70 companies were certified under in April. In June, Unilever announced it would achieve net zero emissions from all its products by 2039.

The drive toward sustainable business practices, greener workplaces and net-zero carbon has gained traction over the last decade. Some of the largest companies in the world have made strategic commitments to fight the global climate crisis, with nearly 25% of Fortune 500 companies setting ambitious deadlines to become carbon neutral by 2045. 

Sustainability programs that were already in place before 2020 have provided a competitive advantage for food and beverage company AB InBev, according to the company’s Global Vice President of Sustainability, Ezgi Barcenas, speaking on the panel “Rethinking a Sustainable World,” at the Bloomberg Green Festival. Having an employee-centric business model and ESG (environmental, social, and corporate governance) strategies established in the global supply chain has made the company more agile throughout the crisis.

The pandemic presented many manufacturers with unforeseen challenges in supply chain sustainability, with consumers worldwide experiencing empty shelves at grocery stores and wasted goods due to supply chain inefficiencies.

Barry Parkin, Chief Procurement and Sustainability Officer at Mars Inc., said while speaking on a panel at the Bloomberg Green Festival, "The first few months of the crisis was about finding the weakest link in the supply chain — which is the essence of sustainability."

“As we sought out to understand that, we needed to decide what we needed to do now [to fix it] and what we needed to do later on,” he says.

The bottom line

Around the globe, consumers have raised their standards for greener workplaces and more responsible business practices. Organizations that fall behind on their sustainability commitments could see an impact on profits.

For instance, last year Majid Al Futtaim, a global real estate and retail company based in Dubai, reduced their water usage by 7%, their carbon emissions 4%, and increased recycling by 32% across all their malls. The group also generated three-million kilowatts in renewable energy at the Mall of Emirates.

“That’s just the beginning,” says Sophie Walker, UK Head of Sustainability at JLL, which helped the company hit these targets. “The pandemic has made them realize that becoming a leader in sustainability isn’t just good for the environment. It’s also good for their bottom line.”

The COVID-19 crisis is reinforcing the importance of having energy and sustainability at the forefront of the economic recovery that lies ahead.

"As we rebuild, we need to reshape the future in front of us," says Richard Batten, JLL's Global Chief Sustainability Officer, on a recent Building Places podcast. "We have the opportunity to reimagine new ways of working that will help us prepare for climate change and sustainability issues over the next 10 to 20 years."