Business as unusual: CSR, sustainability and coronavirus

Even now, amidst so much uncertainty over the immediate future, people are debating the new solutions that will emerge from this crisis – for global health, but also for the way we work and how we treat the planet. How will the COVID-19 crisis shape employee activism and CSR communications in the near future? What potential consequences could the crisis have for how we tackle the climate crisis? We asked strategic policy advisor and sustainability communications expert Jo Sullivan to explain why governments, businesses and society should be reflecting deeply about the lessons that need to be learnt in order to achieve a sustainable future.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash.

The last few years has seen a rise in employee activism around climate change, including a walkout by the group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice in September 2019, which contributed to Jeff Bezos’ pledge to make Amazon a carbon-neutral company by 2040. How will the COVID-19 crisis impact employee activism going forward?

Jo Sullivan: It’s already becoming hard to remember the world before the crisis. Social distancing starts to feel like social isolation. Some of us have packed days with one online meeting after another. Others are fearful for the future as workplaces face uncertainty, economic loss and massive change. Already shifting from busy office to solitary confinement is a strain for many.

Social media sharing and local community activism have become our go-to tools to face the crisis. Awareness of just how fast norms can change when society listens to the science is a lesson for us all. Employees will expect their own leaders to act just as fast when it comes to other crises affecting humanity, notably the climate emergency and biodiversity extinction.

Adjusting to the current health crisis requires new ways of communication within teams, rapid learning, innovating and taking risks to get the job done, all while managing children, pets and a deep underlying fear for the future. Employees trust their employers most to do the right thing, according to the most recent Edelman Trust Barometer, and now they rely on their employers for information, leadership and emotional support. This trust will be matched with fierce loyalty. Employees will be more likely to jump on board corporate activism campaigns in the future.

As the crisis unfolds, employees are learning valuable lessons on what really matters. Spending time alone means time for reflection, and also time for personal activism; whether that’s to lend their voice to support emergency workers at the frontline of the crisis, or to reconsider the fast pace with which they used to live their lives before the crisis, when, according to the 2018 Gallup US workplace survey, over two thirds of employees felt disengaged from their employers. After the crisis is over, employees will expect employers to support new levels of activism, a consequence of more awareness and autonomy.

In the current crisis, the focus is on how companies “behave” socially – towards their employees above all, but also in regards to their supply chains, for example. Is this crisis also an opportunity for heightened CSR communications?

Jo Sullivan: The problem with crises is that they affect every aspect of life. Our work life and home life are now blended, bringing compassion and care to the forefront of business interaction. Yet supply chains that are complex, multi-layered and global are under pressure as borders are rebuilt and freight is slowed, creating anxiety and economic cost. Localisation is the golden goose. The empty shelves in the supermarkets have been matched by a boom in farmers’ markets and farm-direct sales.

What does this mean for companies as they step up their communication during the crisis?

  1. Become overt fans of farmers. Identify and support local market producers wherever possible, whether that’s for locally grown crops, produce or added value suppliers. Localisation is back in fashion.
  2. Communicate with care. Marketing and CSR campaigns can be pushy and invasive at the best of times but now to see ads promoting new product ranges or corporate reputation gimmicks are wholly inappropriate. Community care initiatives are needed right now.
  3. Reflect on a new strategy. When the crisis passes, companies should be ready to share new CSR strategies fit for the new era of renaissance and rebuilding. The post COVID-19 economy will put sustainability and community more centre stage.

We’re facing an immediate global health crisis; at the same time, we’re in the middle of a longer-term climate and environmental crisis. What can climate change communicators take from the response to the COVID-19 crisis?

Jo Sullivan: Already disappointed by the failure of the COP 25 climate talks in Madrid in 2019, climate communicators now expect the COP 26 to be postponed. This will give false hope to those opposing a carbon neutral future. The economic crisis following the COVID-19 crisis will require massive investment. The question is: will society choose a climate friendly future, built around a circular economy, clean technologies and respect for the natural world, or will there be pushback for the old ways? I am optimistic that out of this crisis will be a better world.

  1. Birdsong and bumble bees. Many of us are now enjoying clear skies and clean air, birdsong and bees, often for the first time. Local suppliers are stepping up to serve their communities. If post-crisis society remains local and environmentally minded, we can expect more widespread climate engagement.
  2. Conditions are ripe for systemic transformation. Reflecting now on new strategies fit for the post-COVID-19 world and driving them internally should be a priority for climate communicators, so they are prepared to rebuild in the new paradigm.
  3. Keep the pressure on. Given the radical changes we have all made to our daily lives in face of the COVID-19 crisis, there is a realisation among policy makers that bold policy steps are possible against other crises. In December, the EU Green Deal proposed a climate target of 55% CO2 reduction by 2050. Now the expectation is for a target of 55% by 2030. Twenty years sooner than pre-crisis. In the post crisis world, bold action will be expected and accepted.

The response to the COVID-19 crisis has been dramatic and unprecedented because the virus affects everyone in society, rich or poor, wherever they live in the world. The response to the climate crisis has in contrast been slow and fragmented. Governments have resisted bold action and instead have been for the most part held back by a ‘business as usual’ mindset. As long as the lockdown continues, we will see more new innovative patterns of business as unusual. This is a time for reflection. It will become a time of renaissance and renewal.


About Jo Sullivan

Jo Sullivan is a senior sustainability communication advisor to corporate, NGO and EU institution clients. She founded Conscience Consulting in 2000 and co-founded the Transition500 Alliance in 2014, a global network of sustainability communication consultancies with offices around the world. In 2005, Jo developed the 20-20-20 by 2020 campaign on climate targets for Friends of the Earth Europe and coordinated a 27 EU country programme of advocacy, media and public mobilisation, resulting in a mass protest on Place Schuman, Brussels outside the EU Summit and huge celebration when heads of state agreed the 20-20-20 climate targets.