While many businesses display a disconnect between talk and action on climate change, the recent global shutdowns offer a new opportunity for organizations to rethink their sustainability efforts.
Before the coronavirus reached pandemic levels, nine in ten executives said their businesses felt the increasing impacts of climate change, according to a recent Deloitte Global report. Yet business environmental sustainability initiatives often failed to match executives’ sense of urgency, the report states.
One reason for the disconnect between urgency and action is that well-intentioned environmental sustainability programs can be weakened by short-term thinking, says Sharon Thorne, Deloitte Global Board Chair.
“Humans are poor at thinking long-term and gradual change can be difficult to process,” says Thorne. “Climate change has been creeping up on us for years, and since the most devastating effects have likely not yet materialized, it can be difficult for organizations and investors to truly grasp the threat.”
Business sustainability initiatives can also take time to show results, adds Thorne, which makes climate change a difficult sell compared to actions that generate more immediate short-term returns.
“Unfortunately, short-term thinking often drives more insular, self-serving decisions rather than broader, society-based ones,” she says. To challenge that thinking, Thorne credits the increasingly important role of activism, of young people who are calling for change, and of ongoing media coverage of the issue to ensure that climate threats stay top-of-mind for business leaders and policymakers—and encourage action.
A Case For Long-Term Thinking
While the threat may be difficult to grasp, the solution may be easier to visualize. A pause in global activity during the recent COVID-19 shutdowns made a compelling case for sustainable actions as the polluted skies and waters began to clear in some parts of the world. For the first time in recent memory, residents of Jalandhar, Punjab, for example, reported seeing the snow-capped Himalayan mountains from over 100 miles away. We have seen a glimpse of what is possible.
While these environmental improvements are likely temporary, their impact on younger generations could be longer lasting. Deloitte Global’s 2020 Millennial Survey asked millennials and Gen Zs both before and after the start of the pandemic whether they believed it’s too late to reverse the damage already done by climate change. The report found those surveyed during the pandemic were more optimistic about the chances to repair the damage than those surveyed a few months before.
Climate change also remained a top issue for millennials and Gen Zs surveyed before and during the COVID-19 crisis, even as healthcare and economic concerns were growing. Eight in ten young adults say that governments and businesses need to make greater efforts to protect the environment.
A New Opportunity For Change
If the pandemic reinforced the younger generations’ commitment to fighting climate change, it also created new opportunities for businesses to reconsider their sustainability efforts, says Thorne. COVID-19 is causing many people to pause and think about what’s really important, she says.
“Many people are rethinking the definition of ‘value’—it’s about more than profit,” says Thorne. “Many businesses will require a strategy adjustment or even reset in the wake of the pandemic, and there is an opportunity to demonstrate that they are creating true value for the societies in which they operate.”
Such efforts will need to rebuild society in a way that ensures that the health of the planet and its people stay at the forefront of businesses’ strategies, decisions and actions, Thorne adds.
Efforts to improve sustainability should also include a focus on reducing societal inequalities. Like COVID-19, the harmful impacts of climate catastrophes have a disproportionate impact on vulnerable communities, which leads to even greater inequality.
“The global response to the pandemic has demonstrated that massive change can be brought about incredibly quickly if deemed urgent enough,” says Thorne. “As with COVID-19, it’s not always possible to see climate change actually happening. However, we can certainly see the massive impact it has. At this critical juncture, we must seize the opportunity to accelerate to a more sustainable and equitable world for all.”
Making A Global Effort
Corporate boards can boost sustainability programs by working with management to set a clear and strong purpose for the organization, says Thorne. To help define that purpose, companies can consider social and environmental concerns that are already linked to the long-term success of the organization.
“Together, tone and communication build a culture that puts purpose at the center of decision-making,” she adds. In addition to setting a clear purpose, Thorne recommends five actions that companies can take to make sustainability core to their long-term plans:
- Ensure that boards and CEOs take accountability for environmental sustainability initiatives. “While it’s important to have specific teams devoted to sustainability, these efforts won’t go far without buy-in and accountability from the top,” says Thorne.
- Embed environmental sustainability into business strategy as a “must-have” priority. This action will become increasingly imperative for organizations as climate protests and activism increase, adds Thorne.
- Collaborate. No organization or individual can tackle this alone, says Thorne. To increase impact, organizations should pursue partnerships with organizations and individuals that have like-minded missions and shared goals.
- Set tangible goals for the long term and the short term. This is especially relevant for carbon reduction and other environmental priorities. It’s important to think long-term and set challenging ambitions while also ensuring that current leadership is held accountable in the short term for making progress against these goals (e.g., setting five-year goals) to avoid leaving the problem entirely for the next generation.
- Implement measurement and reporting processes to track environmental goals. Use science-based targets that have executive backing, for example, and report externally on progress.
Efforts to repair the environmental damage already inflicted on the planet will require a global effort, Thorne says. As part of that, everyone—from businesses to governments to NGOs to individuals—has a responsibility to assess and address their own impact, share best practices and take tangible action to build a better world, she adds.
“Everyone has a role to play in striving to leave the world better than we found it. Our ability to stick to these actions and behavior changes,” says Thorne, “will be vital for the health of our planet and ultimately for the continued existence of life.”