How has COVID-19 changed the role of sustainability for organisations?
Francesca Viliani, Director of Public Health and co-Head of Sustainability, Denmark
COVID-19 is the most wide-reaching public health crisis our world has faced in a long time. It has significantly impacted practically every aspect of business operations. COVID-19 has made three aspects very clear:
- The centrality of sustainability for business resilience. Companies that integrated sustainability and transparency strategically into their business operations prior to the COVID-19 crisis have put an even stronger focus on it now during the crisis. More importantly, they were much more agile in responding to unexpected events.
- From my perspective, health, safety and wellbeing became central to the resiliency and sustainability discussion in a way that it has never occurred before.
- Additionally, the role of partnerships; nobody can deal with a pandemic on their own.
As a public health specialist, I always engage with clients in discussions on what is most ‘healthy’ for them. I really like the WHO definition from 1946, “health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. It emphasises that health is a positive concept, an enabling factor, and a prerequisite for sustainable development. Just to reinforce this point further, the Sustainable Development Goal 3 (SDG 3) aims to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all ages. However, health is determined by complex interactions between various personal, social, economic, political, and environmental factors. SDG 3 is therefore closely interlinked with all the other SDGs and central to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
For a long time, health and safety have been considered important for businesses, but highly technical and not central to the sustainability discussion. COVID-19 has changed this perception completely. As a health advisor for different organisations during the COVID-19, I have engaged with multiple departments, of course in health, safety, and environment, but also in HR, legal, real estate, global mobility and sustainability.
A clear example is the need to reconceptualise the workplace. When most of your employees are working from home, you need to find new ways to protect and support them. What we can see now is that what started off as a response to an emergency, has led to a more profound change to the operating models, with remote working and flexible structures becoming more prevalent. This will result in a significant change in materiality assessment and reporting.
We have not reached the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic curve globally. We recognise that the effects of COVID-19 are wide ranging, and learning how to navigate these complexities is crucial.
Four key messages that can influence resilience and sustainability include:
- Awareness: act on credible & reliable information
- Behaviour: communicate with & educate your people
- Culture: have a plan & be ready to react
- Demonstrate: protect employees, supply chains, customers, and the public.
Companies will need to carry out a new materiality assessment to ensure they have captured what is really material to them. They will then need to address these issues in their sustainability strategy and report about it. Addressing the interlinkages between environment, social, economics, and wellbeing are the initial building blocks. However, a new and more transparent governance which use adaptive management to deal with crisis is needed. I would like to read in future reports how organisations have responded to crisis comprehensively and in ways which cover the workforce, supply chains, customers, and the public. Also, the lessons which they have learned for future crisis response and the role of partnerships for sustainability.