How businesses can make sustainability part of their business model post-COVID

A question hangs over the end of lockdown, and whether, with respect to the climate crisis, we fall back into old habits or rebuild better.

In either case, business has a starring role to play. More and more businesses have been introducing sustainable policies and business practices in recent years, but sustainability is not the only goal. Businesses must support fairness in climate action for the most vulnerable people in their supply chain and the communities in which they work. But at a time of economic hardship and potential recessions, when survival is the name of the game, these initiatives can tumble down the priority list.

sustainability businessSustainability is good for business

Sustainability and business are not in opposition. Indeed, most published studies on the topic have concluded the opposite. Of 100 studies of the relationship between sustainability and competitiveness, 64 showed that sustainability policies were, in fact, good for the bottom line, and good for long-term financial performance As for the others, just two found overtly negative effects.

The question is not whether businesses should be more sustainable but how they should go about it. And it is key here not to concentrate exclusively on sustainability but to view this work through a climate justice lens, which frames climate change as an ethical and political (i.e., human) issue. Climate justice underscores the social impact of climate change and places people at the centre of any climate action. By thinking in this way, any initiatives a business launches are far more likely to be joined up with one another and have a greater impact.

This also provides a solid framework for dialogue with stakeholders. Transparently committing to climate action centred on people is a way of demonstrating that you are striving to balance the economic and social priorities of your team and external stakeholders with the urgent necessity to address the climate crisis. And this change in mindset also encourages commercial innovation and investment—in new technology, products, services, processes, and models. What arises out of this investment and innovation could make your business more resilient in the face of systemic shocks not limited to climate change.

How to build sustainability into business

1. Core business

There are three main ways to put this into practice. The first has to do with your core business. It begins by committing to putting people first. You must identify the vulnerable stakeholders in your operations, value chain and communities, and identify the particular threats and problems they face. Only then can these problems be addressed, through enhanced policies, processes, products, services, technology, financing mechanisms and business models. You can use marketing to promote awareness of climate justice issues among employees or suppliers, or support women’s economic growth through procurement from women-led enterprises. The first step, however, is to gather knowledge and open a dialogue with your people.

2. Philanthropy

You can explore ways to make the most of corporate philanthropy, employee engagement and social investment to support the most vulnerable people and to make sure that voices within the communities in which you operate are heard. This boils down to activities such as supporting local organisations and community projects, and investing in the development of skills among vulnerable groups. STEM skills have a big part to play in enabling people to engage in the green economy. Philanthropy can support community priorities like improving food security, tackling food waste and enhancing water access.

3. Policy engagement

Engage in policy dialogue, raising awareness and strengthening partnerships to support the most vulnerable people. Businesses can form partnerships with peers, civil society and authorities and advocate for equitable and inclusive climate solutions. You could, for instance, speak on behalf of those who will be harmed by the zero-carbon transition, backing targeted social support or job creation, or loudly support policies that will empower vulnerable and underrepresented groups.

All this starts with a sincere effort on the part of businesses and individuals to commit to rebuilding a greener and fairer world post-pandemic. We must not slip back to the status quo, however tempting it may be, and however familiar it may feel, it wasn’t working

There will be challenges but the business case is clear-cut. The level of transformational change needed over the next decade will require us all to think and act differently and collaborate in ways we have never done before. Viewing your business actions through a climate justice lens – not mere sustainability – can help accelerate your efforts and impact.

Zahid Torres-Rahman is the CEO and Co-Founder of Business Fights Poverty.

Business Fights Poverty, in partnership with the Harvard Kennedy School and Change by Degrees has recently launched its Climate Justice Framework, kicking off a year-long programme of activities on climate justice.