Six key areas of focus for sustainability professionals during lockdown

It's been almost a month since the UK Government introduced lockdown measures in response to Covid-19 and has since announced a further three-week extension to social distancing. As such, edie offers some best-practice advice for sustainability professionals to keep focusing on the climate battle during the pandemic.

Six key areas of focus for sustainability professionals during lockdown

From digging through the data to help you communicate to exploring long-term resiliency

A lot has changed since the UK officially issued a three-week lockdown to halt the spread of the coronavirus. Both the fossil fuels and renewables industries are being hit by production slowdowns, the economy continues to slump and the daily death toll has gone from agonising figures to a slow yet promising decline.

Even four weeks on from the original lockdown issued by the UK Government, many are still getting to grips with temporary ways of working from home. From those juggling work lives while entertaining the family to others cooped up in small flats, many workers are adapting to virtual meetings, Joe Wicks workout sessions and the now eternal internal debate of “is it too early for a drink?”

When the UK lockdown was first announced, edie outlined six pieces of best-practice advice for evolving engagement with key contacts during these uncertain times. While these pieces of advice still ring true, the concept of another three weeks in lockdown (which will likely be increased again), many workers – including sustainability professionals – are now grappling with the mentally-draining prospect of further disruption caused by the coronavirus lockdown.

As such, edie has reached out to sustainability professionals for new content, including podcasts, webinars, interviews and our new #sustytalks video series. Everyone we’ve spoken to so far is adapting to new ways of working and dealing with the prospect that sustainability is slipping down the corporate agenda as businesses focus on contingency and recovery plans. Here, edie rounds-up six more pieces of advice for sustainability professionals during the lockdown.

1) Adapt your focus

edie’s own survey of sustainability professionals shows that coronavirus is slowing corporate actions on sustainability. More than half of respondents confirmed that their organisation was having to postpone sustainability-related announcements in light of the impacts of coronavirus.

While many will have been frustrated by the derailing of announcements, many will now be working on various projects and potentially picking up the tasks left by any stuff that may have been furloughed. As such, adaptability and perseverance are now key traits for sustainability professionals as we focus on the next lockdown period.

Richard Marsh, for example, is currently overseeing the development of BT’s 2020 sustainability report to be published in May. However, the switch to a more virtual way of working and accounting for the business impacts of Covid-19 has seen Richard pivot the reporting process slightly.

“We’re taking on the whole reporting process virtually – including assurance,” he says. “But it’s naturally brought some challenges. We of course typically report in terms of what’s happened in the year that’s just gone, but it would be quite remiss not to acknowledge the very fundamental thing that’s going on in the world right now – particularly some of the steps we are taking to respond to it.”

Adapting not just to the challenges, but also the opportunities of new ways of working is key to ensuring that sustainability doesn’t halt to a standstill during this period. Fortunately, the plethora of virtual meeting rooms available means that many have actually been able to get closer to their associates and colleagues on a more personal level, strengthening the rapport of the sustainability team as a result.

2) Lead through science

There are parallels to be made from the Government’s confusing insistence that it has “listened to the science” in its response to the coronavirus that at one point focused on a “herd immunity” mantra that has since been quietly dropped.

Greenwash is still a big issue in the sustainability sphere, and those that typically stand out in the vanguard of sustainable business are those that can demonstrate their environmental credentials and commitments to combatting climate change.

The most common way has been through the setting of science-based targets, which are aligned to the needs of the Paris Agreement. With the public and stakeholders now less likely to take green claims at face value, now is the perfect time to showcase a science-based contribution to mitigating the severe impacts of climate change.

While reporting requirements can be a year-round endeavour for some sustainability professionals, Landsec’s Caroline Hill notes that “one trend we’re seeing is all of the benchmarks like CDP or the DJSI are pushing back their timelines, which does ease the pressure a bit on the team”.

This week, the S&P Dow Jones Indices launched a Paris-Aligned Climate (PA) Index and a Climate Transition (CT) Index to classify corporate approaches to risk reduction through climate mitigation. The indices incorporate the Financial Stability Board’s Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures’ (TCFD) recommendations for assessing climate-related risks, opportunities and financial impacts. The new indices are the latest in a growing list of financial frameworks designed to funnel investment into sustainable, future-proof businesses. Showcasing the numbers and the science of a sustainability strategy is now an imperative aspect of gaining new finance streams and rising above the noise of businesses claiming to be green.

3) Examine the new normal

For some, the coronavirus has been likened to a prelude of the severe impacts that climate change will cause on socio-economic resiliency. While many workers have been social distancing to the short-term benefits of air quality and reduced carbon emissions, some toil on the frontline and others have unfortunately lost jobs and loved ones.

While these benefits are expected to subside as production ramps up and normality resumes, sustainability professionals need to be aware that there will be a “new normal” post-Covid-19. Business leaders and policymakers will likely request new mechanisms are put in place to ensure nations and organisations alike can respond much more efficiently during any future outbreaks.

“One crucial point to recognise, is that some may be thinking that we will go ‘back to normal’. That won’t happen – there will be a ‘new normal’. It will be key to adjust quickly to the implications, new processes and opportunities of that ‘new normal’” former Carillion chief sustainability officer, David Picton, told edie.

Businesses would do well to explore how supply chain sustainability can be improved so that production isn’t slowed down by transportation delays. This may also be the chance to showcase the environmental benefits of remote working. However, sustainability professionals will absolutely have to make the case that their actions and strategy are business critical.

“What we do not want is sustainability going back into that box of ‘a nice thing to do when times are good’. What is absolutely critical is sustainability needs to be put into the language of commercial business – pounds and pence. We need to be saying that our sustainability initiatives are business-critical because they will cost but generate y,” Kier Group’s head of sustainability and environment Jo Gilroy tells edie.

4) Focus on long-term resiliency

One of the focuses on the “new normal” will be focusing on improving resiliency in the long-term. Following a disruptive period where businesses are examining the short-term impacts of the coronavirus, sustainability professionals can outline how long-term sustainability strategies can improve resiliency to future socio-economic shocks, many of which are expected to be driven by climate change.

Whether it’s supply chain disruption caused by mass migration or facilities damaged by extreme weather, the C-Suite is now going to be far more receptive to measures the can prevent business damage in the future, no matter how hard that cause of said damage is to define.

“There’s been a bit of a shift in priorities,” Claudia Dommett-Nöhren, head of sustainability and innovation at railway infrastructure firm Colas Rail UK says. “Whereas before I was very much focused on delivering campaigns and raising awareness across the business, things have now moved from the implementation stage back to the planning and strategic outlook phase. We’re battening down the hatches; researching and getting all of our ducks in a row so that, when lockdown ends, we can hit the ground running and start delivering against our sustainability strategy again.” 

In a recent edie webinar on supply chain climate resiliency, speakers from BT, HPE, Project X Global and UL all offered thoughts on whether the impacts of coronavirus would impact how businesses manage their value chains. Whether supply chains will become more localised largely depends on what is being produced, but speakers were in agreement that looking beyond a business’s own operations will be key going forward to proactively mitigate future climate changes. You can watch the webinar on-demand here.

5) Outline ‘just’ value creation

“On the positive side, it’s been really interesting to see how unifying Covid-19 has been across communities and even in politics,” Interface’s regional sustainability manager (UKIME & Nordics), Jon Khoo tells edie. “People are coming together and they’re being really creative with the solutions they’re coming up with. 

“If we could do the same with climate change, we could really move things forward much more quickly. But it comes with a word of warning though: any attempt to market sustainability off the back of Covid-19, I’d stay really clear of.”

Jon’s words tap into a notion that sustainability should create long-lasting value, not just for a businesses bottom line and reputation, but also for the societies, communities and customers it serves.

There has been a lot of discussions around the lockdown, the coronavirus and how those living on the breadline are worse off as a result. Sustainability is still trying to shake the notion that it isn’t a premium that excludes poorer communities and efforts are being made to deliver a “just transition” to a low-carbon economy that brings all of society along with it.

This idea is also captured in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Green New Deal. As businesses look to align with these broader frameworks and movements, they’ll also need to explore how supply chains and communities are benefitting from bespoke sustainability training and whether their products and services are accessible to all.

6) Don’t forget about your own wellbeing

Working to mitigate the threat of climate change was a daunting task at the best of times. During a global pandemic, it can be hard to take the long-term view and instead get shackled by the daily death tolls and social media debates about government responses.

There’s a reason that you’re told to “put your oxygen mask on first,” during the pre-flight run-throughs. Each worker, regardless of their living condition or job status needs to be able to look after their own wellbeing in order to be productive at work.

Whether it’s creating to-do lists, keeping active, upskilling yourself, or simply picking up the phone – the smallest of steps can make a big difference to your own wellbeing and in turn your productivity.

edie recently listed eight great books and eight great films/docuseries for sustainability professionals to finally watch and read during the lockdown. Alongside the traditional exercise and communicate steps for wellbeing, these can be a great way to take your mind off the news while focusing on something you’re passionate about.

Matt Mace

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