Is business too busy saving itself to save the environment?

Photo: RetailWire
Jun 12, 2020
Tom Ryan

The worldwide pandemic lockdowns have resulted in less pollution, cleaner skies and a drop in CO2 emissions, stirring hope that deeper climate change commitments will be made. Economic pressure, however, could lead companies to at least temporarily abandon sustainability commitments.

In an early May Wall Street Journal article entitled, “Sustainability Was Corporate America’s Buzzword. This Crisis Changes That,” columnist John D. Stoll wrote, “Today, every occupant of every C-suite is trying to figure out what they’re willing to throw overboard as the economic storm spawned by the pandemic is swamping their ships. Businesses that were planning to help save the world are now simply saving themselves.”

Research after the 2008 recession found an abrupt decline in public concern about climate change in the U.S. and Europe that was most likely driven by economic insecurity.

Some environmentalists find a pause, within limits, appropriate at this time to stabilize business. Emma Priestland, corporate campaign manager at Break Free From Plastic, told Adweek. “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.”

Most ambitiously, Boston Consulting Group, Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) and Higg Co. in late April jointly issued a study — “Weaving a Better Future: Rebuilding a More Sustainable Fashion Industry After COVID-19” — urging fashion companies to double-down on social and environmental commitments, despite COVID-19-related strains on resources.

Rather than canceling orders, the report makes the case that collaborating with suppliers to reduce complexity and costs, elevating overall transparency, and demonstrating social responsibility will pay off with deeper trust from consumers and value chain partners alike.

“Early signals suggest that a global health crisis will increase overall consumer demand for products closely associated with trust, well-being, and the collective good — particularly in categories such as food and nutrition, but also in beauty and fashion, which are considered ‘close to the body’,” the study stated. “As consumers spend less money but more consciously, the expectation for sustainability, fair working conditions, and ethical action within supply chains will become absolute table stakes.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Has it become more important for brands and retailers to stick to sustainability commitments, despite the coronavirus outbreak? Will COVID-19 and the recession be a positive, negative or neutral factor in the progress of corporate sustainability programs?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Over the medium to long term, sustainability will make a comeback as the economy recovers."
"My advice is to pivot from thinking of sustainability as a branding or communications tactic and get R&D, supply chain, and operations seats at the table..."
"I believe that the previous growing collective consumer demand for sustainable practices will accelerate in the mid to long term."

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20 Comments on "Is business too busy saving itself to save the environment?"

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Suresh Chaganti

It is not surprising, though I hope environmental initiatives will return to being considered. Fashion, which is one of the biggest contributors to environmental damage and has the most visible initiatives planned, is also the area most hit by the pandemic. When it is a fight-or-flight situation like it is now, it is not surprising where the mindshare and wallet share would go.

Jeff Sward

Retailers and brands can always find a reason to defer change. Or they can embrace the fact that change and evolution are fundamental to their business and act accordingly. That’s not to say that short term survival doesn’t leap to the top of the list pretty quickly. But short term survival tactics don’t mean that long term strategic initiatives have to be abandoned. The article says it succinctly. Sustainability = table stakes.

David Weinand

In the short term – survival will take priority over sustainability. However, the change in consumer preferences and awareness around sustainable practices will eventually win the day and retailers and brands will have to continue or begin initiatives around making their businesses more sustainable.

Ron Margulis

Quick answers – yes and positive.

If nothing else, consumers now understand the critical importance of cleaning things to keep healthy. Their hands, prep surfaces, even doorknobs and mail. They are looking ever more closely at what they’re using to sanitize everything around them. Partly because they have time but also because they see the damage harsh chemicals can do on their hands with constant washing and elsewhere. So there is a desire for products that are better for us. The question, which will be even more important if the economy continues to tank, becomes are those items affordable to everyone? Store brands will likely influence this outcome so I remain positive the trend for more environmentally-friendly products has legs and both retailers and suppliers need to bolster their corporate sustainability programs.

Dave Bruno

While we all need to focus on business survival in the short-term, climate change is one of the risk factors for future pandemics. We can’t afford to lose focus on this critical issue and, hopefully, consumers will push retailers to stay focused.

Ricardo Belmar

For brands and retailers survival has become the top priority, even at the expense of sustainability and other environmental action plans. However, consumers are not going to abandon their sustainability preferences, if anything they’ve simply added health and safety to their top priority list. That means brands and retailers won’t be able to just abandon those initiatives without paying a customer penalty. Overall, I think the pandemic will have a neutral effect on sustainability. There may be a temporary blip, but consumers won’t shift those preferences. From their perspective, consumers may feel more strongly about the environment coming out of the pandemic as they’ll see the news reports about how much lower CO2 emissions are as well as other positive indicators due to the world being in lockdown conditions.

Paula Rosenblum

I think the industry is still looking to Gen X and Boomers as its primary buyers. It is time to give serious thoughts to Millennials and Gen Z. And they care a lot more about the environment.

In case no one has noticed, we are in the midst of a culture war. It’s somewhat generational, somewhat demographic and economically based, but we are in it. However, as Bob Dylan once said “The old world is rapidly changing.” I do believe the thoughtful among our young are getting a serious dose of “Humans do not have dominion over nature and it’s time to respect her.” That will include sustainability.

I think if a retailer is not making an effort to be color blind and environmentally aware, it’s a dead man walking.

Lisa Goller

2020 shifted our priorities. While consumers still care about sustainability, companies face urgent issues like health, safety and solvency. Single-use straws and bags take a back seat amid layoffs and bankruptcies. Yet, over the medium to long term, sustainability will make a comeback as the economy recovers.

Keith Anderson
I see a lot of mainstream commentary, especially from financiers, that the twin public health and financial crises will lead shoppers to abandon their interest in sustainable products and practices, liberating retailers and brands to relax their commitments. Given the volatility, it can be tough to draw conclusions about how attitudes and behaviors will evolve from here. Here’s one data point: according to Nielsen in the U.K. for the year to date, brands with sustainability claims have outgrown conventional brands by almost 18 percentage points. It is certainly reasonable to question whether shoppers will “pay a premium” for sustainable commerce. But as the public health crisis has shown us, the “cost” of a decision — to individuals, communities, countries, and the world — is not always reflected in an item’s price. We’ve spent the better part of a century operating under the premise that shoppers should expect infinite selection, immediate gratification, ever-lower prices, and a pleasant and frictionless experience. Every time, all the time. And if you’re not growing — and ideally outpacing your peers’… Read more »
Andrew Blatherwick

While business will certainly be focused on saving itself, there have been many things the pandemic has taught us about how we can work without many of the practices that are bad for the environment. People will probably travel less for business now as we have all become accustomed to using online calls. Many businesses will look to establish supply chains closer to home in part if not in total and many consumers have learned to live without the disposable fashion items they used to buy. This may not be labelled as an ecological strategy but will take business in that direction while business is saving itself at the same time. These two things are not necessarily mutually exclusive and we will see many benefits coming out of the changes.

Scott Norris

Shorter food supply chains = better disease/contaminant tracing and containment + more local accountability + lower transportation cost and emissions + dollars stay in the region = a more resilient local economy, population, and environment.

Copy and paste with adaptations for clothing, many consumer goods, and power production. The smart, transformative business case right now just so happens to be the one that also rebuilds local communities and saves Earth.

Mark Heckman

I hope one thing we can all agree upon is the importance of retail commitment to operating in an increasingly eco-friendly manner. This priority also harmonizes well with personal safety that all brick-and-mortar retailers must promote as we move forward. I do believe that one of the few silver linings of these lockdowns was to see dolphins swimming in Venice, Italy, wildlife flourishing in closed national parks and clear skies in cities that are typically fogged with exhaust. I also get the sense that we are at a new inflection point for consumer awareness and appreciation of the world around us and agree with others that shoppers will reward retailers who make concerted efforts in sustainability.

Stephen Rector

For retailers to pull back on their sustainability initiatives due to COVID-19 is not a smart move. I believe that there will be a positive push going forward for sustainability programs and the brands that push the farthest will be the winners.

Ralph Jacobson

This is all about priorities and perception. In the grocery business. Although I know of no cases of COVID-19 contamination via infected surface contact, I do know that shoppers feel better about taking disposable plastic bags rather than using their own reusable bags during the pandemic to at least give the impression of not spreading the virus. This is true even though there is just as much of a risk of an infected clerk touching the plastic bags on the rack and potentially spreading the virus. Also some retailers are struggling for their very existence, so hugging trees may not be at the top of their list of priorities right now — sorry.

Kai Clarke

Beggars cannot be choosers. When a business has to choose between survival or minimizing its environmental impact, most companies cannot afford the luxury of going out of business. In the short term, this is what we should expect. Longer term, we can have different discussions and manage different expectations.

Phil Rubin
3 months 10 days ago
As Paula Rosenblum aptly points out, we are in the middle of a culture war and truly polarizing times. The winning side includes not only health and safety (wear a mask in public!) and (anti-) racism but also the environment. COVID-19 underscored our vulnerability to nature and that extends beyond a virus directly to our planet. The economic recovery post-COVID in China underscores that, at least among the affluent — which is where the greatest spending power is as we recover — sustainability matters to consumers and directly impacts their spending. The polarization also exists between those companies (and brands) committed to doing the right things — keeping customers and employees safe, being anti-racist (and anti a bunch of other bad things like xenophobia, other religions, etc.) and saving the planet — and those who are not. This movement isn’t new, but it is fully awakened as a result of the pandemic and the recent murders of people due to nothing more than their skin color. It’s also about brands showing loyalty to customers, employees,… Read more »
Brian Numainville

It is a mix of both short-term and long-term focus. In the immediate future, some may pull back from sustainability initiatives and reallocate resources and efforts to survival and, where they do make commitments, it might be to other culturally relevant causes. But over the longer term, paying attention to the focus of younger generations on the environment and sustainability needs to remain in play or those customers will be alienated by those who do not.

Craig Sundstrom

One of the challenges (IMHO the main challenge) of the sustainability movement has been to convince people it doesn’t have to mean “less,” it can (also) mean “different.” But of course “less” is one avenue, and since it’s what we’re seeing at present, it’s likely the connection will for the moment be made firmer in people’s minds; so short-term, yes, the crisis will hurt progress.

In the longer-term though, assuming the economies of the world revive (and if they don’t then we may have arrived at a permanent “less” solution) won’t we have the same problems, demanding the same solutions? I don’t think the impediment is going to be COVID as much as a lack on political will. The trends of the past few years have hardly been encouraging, with both right and left competing to outdo each other in stupidity.

Mike Osorio

Short term, basic economics will pause some intended progress on sustainability commitments. Companies clearly need to stabilize. However, I believe that the previous growing collective consumer demand for sustainable practices will accelerate in the mid to long term. The surviving companies will meet consumer demand with innovations in design and production methods, supply chains, corporate transparency, and more. Impacts from COVID and Black Lives Matter cultural shifts will produce accelerated shifts toward sustainable business practices among retailers and suppliers.

Chuck Ehredt

I believe customers are paying very close attention to what brands are doing during this pandemic and will support brands that have aligned values. The past 3 months of physical distancing and working from home have also broken many habits formed over the past decade. Brands must obviously survive, but I do not believe looking after our environment, surviving, and growing the business are incompatible. Brands may need to cut some initiatives, but cutting CSR initiatives related to the environment would be very short-sighted for nearly any company.

"Over the medium to long term, sustainability will make a comeback as the economy recovers."
"My advice is to pivot from thinking of sustainability as a branding or communications tactic and get R&D, supply chain, and operations seats at the table..."
"I believe that the previous growing collective consumer demand for sustainable practices will accelerate in the mid to long term."

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