Will Sustainability Remain a Corporate Priority After Covid-19?

Economic pressures of the pandemic could endanger green initiatives

the earth with flowers growing out of it
Sustainability could take a hit as companies have to forge ahead after Covid-19.
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In Venice, Italy, without a gondola or tourist in sight, a jellyfish was spotted wading through the city’s famous canals. In New Delhi, India, the city’s toxic air pollution, once visible from space, has begun to clear. Along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor route, from Maryland past Boston, air pollution fell 30%, according to NASA—the cleanest it has been since the agency started measuring. Los Angeles is experiencing its longest stretch of “good” air quality since 1995. Carbon emissions in China fell nearly 25% when manufacturing shut down to contain the spread of coronavirus.

As the meme goes, nature is healing. Perhaps the sole upside to the Covid-19 crisis is that we’ve momentarily eased our strain on the Earth’s climate. But it won’t last long. In the broader context, pandemics are temporary, but climate change won’t be.

Over the last decade, brands in most consumer-facing industries have taken notice, incorporating sustainability into their supply chains and appointing C-suite executives to oversee green initiatives. But, given the economic damage caused by Covid-19, are their ambitious goals still viable?

On May 6, Unilever CEO Alan Jope released a statement commemorating the 10th anniversary of the brand’s Sustainable Living Plan, which seeks to “decouple” the company’s growth from its environmental footprint. In the statement, Jope also called attention to the human toll of climate change, noting that Covid-19 has contributed to the suffering of already vulnerable communities.

“The pressures on the planet are getting worse, and social inequality has reached a critical point, being made even more severe by the devastating pandemic we’re living through,” Jope wrote. “These issues are just as urgent as they were before Covid-19 struck, and—like Covid-19—they will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable. The climate crisis risks adding hundreds of millions more.”

Unilever set its sights on halving its use of virgin plastic by 2025, and told Adweek that it remained committed to that goal—but not every company would reaffirm its sustainability plans.

In 2019, Marriott, Hilton and IHG each announced that they’d be “evicting” hotel miniatures in an effort to cut down single-use plastics. Now, Marriott’s sustainability officer is on a temporary leave, and the brand declined to say whether that goal was still reachable.

Following in the slipstream of European budget airline EasyJet, in January, JetBlue announced that by July, its domestic operations would be carbon neutral, meaning it would pay to offset the environmental impact of each and every flight. JetBlue told Adweek that it was still committed to this timeline but declined to say how it would be paying for it. (Notably, the airline is flying 80% fewer flights since the outbreak, year over year.)

“It’s absolutely a concern, but I don’t think it’s wrong for a company to temporarily pause initiatives while they’re focusing on protecting the people that work for them, as long as it’s not the profit line that’s being protected,” said Emma Priestland, a corporate campaign manager at Break Free From Plastic, an environmental coalition that includes Greenpeace. “We’re looking at environmental performance over the long term. It isn’t about short-term initiatives that look nice and shiny in a press release.”

The usual suspects of corporate sustainability, Ben and Jerry’s and Seventh Generation, each acknowledged the uphill climb facing their respective brands.

“Our team is thinking about where can we go from here,” said Ashley Orgain, global director of advocacy and sustainability at Seventh Generation, a household products and cleaning brand that emphasizes sustainable sourcing. The brand is in the process of reviewing its initiatives.

Seventh Generation had set a goal in 2018 to help its own manufacturers switch to renewable energy and to set emissions reduction targets, among other larger sustainability initiatives, but the pandemic has strained its supply chain so much that it’s considering whether this would be unachievable. A week later, the brand told Adweek that it was following through on the commitment.

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