It’s safe to say that COVID-19 and the associated restrictions and lockdowns drastically altered the way we worked and lived virtually overnight.
As the successful vaccine rollout continues and we edge closer and closer to normal life, there’s been much discussion about the lessons learnt from the pandemic, as well as the setbacks and long-term issues caused by successive lockdowns. This is particularly true for issues of sustainability and environmentalism, which have understandably taken a back seat during this time of global crisis.
But far from putting the brakes on progress and change, there’s a chance that the pandemic may have ramped up both the need and desire for decisive and effective action. Indeed, COVID-19 may very well represent a significant turning point in our journey towards a more sustainable way of both living and working.
For many businesses, the pandemic has represented a near-insurmountable economic challenge. With all non-essential businesses forced to close their doors, many will have no doubt experienced a financially challenging and economically turbulent 14 months. Indeed, it’s estimated that the total cost of COVID-19 on SMEs (which in turn make up 99% of all businesses in the UK) is £126.6 billion.
In a time when simply staying afloat is difficult, sustainable business practices are hardly a top priority for most businesses. Indeed, it’s estimated that only 30% of companies continued to invest in sustainability and energy saving during the coronavirus crisis. Despite this temporary pause in investments, however, a study carried out by the Institute of Workplace & Facilities Management (IWFM) showed that attitudes remain positive, with 74% of executive managers and 73% of middle managers still considering sustainability to be “very important”.
Despite this setback to business investment in sustainable practices, the pandemic ultimately had an unintended positive, though short-term, impact on the environment, which has still enabled many businesses to hit their sustainability goals somewhat accidentally. Indeed, The International Energy Agency predicts that we’ll use 6% less energy this year, which may not sound impressive but is actually equivalent to India’s annual energy consumption.
In addition to this, 2020 saw a 5.8% decrease in global energy-related CO2 emissions, the largest percentage decline since WW2. Sadly, this change seems to have been temporary, with CO2 concentration levels hitting a record high as we slowly return to normality and start travelling around more. It’s clear that we can’t rest on our laurels; there’s still a long way to go in the fight against climate change and pollution.
The COVID-19 lockdown gave us a taste of what life would be like if we adopted a more sustainable approach to working and living: cleaner air, less noise pollution and improved water quality. We’ve seen what’s possible if we take care of the planet, and this has no doubt had an impact on public opinion.
Companies must develop on this progress and seize on this opportunity to rebuild their business, placing sustainability at the centre of their future business model. Indeed, Lord Deben, Environment Secretary in 1993-97 commented in the Telegraph “We must restart, reimagine and regenerate our businesses so that they are fitted for the sustainable economic recovery”. Embracing new habits that were adopted in the pandemic, for example, home working, could play a vital role in achieving sustained change.
Going forward, one of the biggest challenges for businesses will be balancing sustainability with the need to get back on their feet after a financially difficult 14-months. It could be tempting to put sustainability on hold; after all, it takes time and money to change your business practices. But in the long term, it’s an important transition that needs to be made and will ultimately be a benefit to your business, customers and the environment. COVID-19 could very well represent the turning point your business needs to make vital changes to sustainability.