On May 21st, 2020, SustainAbility convened an international group of sustainability thought leaders for a discussion on business resilience and recovery under the COVID-19 pandemic.


Panelists included Peter Bakker, President and CEO, WBCSD; Carine de Boissezon, Chief Sustainability Officer, EDF; Keith Tuffley, Global Co-Head, Sustainability & Corporate Transitions, Citi; and Keryn James, CEO, ERM. The discussion was moderated by Mark Lee, Executive Director, SustainAbility and Partner, ERM.

The conversation touched on many important and prominent themes, including the reframing of risk and the ever-looming threat of climate change. Threads of hope and optimism emerged, from the opportunity for a systems overhaul to the power of collaboration in recovery. Read on for more details and key takeaways from the discussion.

A renewed focus on the food value chain

With empty shelves in major retailers a common scene in the early months of the pandemic, maintaining strong supply chains is an ongoing effort. Peter Bakker described how essential workers including farmers, factory workers and retail attendants will likely retain a level of recognition and benefits from their crucial work during the crisis. He also outlined the immediate need to focus on supply chain resilience to ensure systems can survive ongoing and future crises, and he stressed that ensuring farmers and workers are supported is key to future sector resilience.

Redefining risk

Keryn James spoke to the need to redefine and broaden our approach to risk. She explored how the current crisis has been particularly crippling to those organizations that overlooked broader and less likely risks like a pandemic in favor of immediate risks like a specific supply chain disruption as might be caused by a weather event. Keryn also noted the way in which globalization frames our discussion of risk, and as the crisis has shown us, the need to plan for not just regional but global events. Carine de Boissezon noted that although it can be difficult to commit to investing in preparation for unlikely events, the crisis has underscored the need to embrace a level of uncertainty when facing risks that are not easily understood and measured.

Strong signs for ESG

Seeing how well sustainable investments have performed under the pressure of the last few months has been encouraging, and Keith Tuffley spoke to recent data showing that ESG funds are outperforming traditional investments during the crisis. He quoted a powerful statistic from BlackRock stating that, in the first quarter of 2020, 94% of their sustainable indices have outperformed their parent benchmarks. As extreme weather and other unpredictable catastrophic events are likely to increase in the coming years due to climate change, proof of the strength of sustainable investments is key to growth in the space.

Climate action can’t wait

The ways in which climate change is wholly interconnected with the current crisis was continuously underscored by panelists. Keith reminded the audience that while this pandemic has had a huge impact on the global economic system and mental and social health, it will likely pale in comparison to the worst impacts climate change will bring if we do not align with the Paris Agreement. “Climate urgency has not stopped during lockdown,” remarked Carine.

Collaborate for success

In terms of recovery and future resilience, Keith noted the full systems shift that is required. All panelists underscored the view that there’s no silver bullet for sustained resilience and that only a holistic and comprehensive approach will move us in the right direction at the pace we need. Finally, Keryn and Peter emphasized the need for collaboration across value chains for the benefit of humanity as a whole.

These points are but the highlights from a dynamic and insightful conversation. To learn more about what our expert panelists think of business resilience under COVID-19, you can listen to the full webinar recording.