On April 16, 2020, SustainAbility convened an international group of sustainability thought leaders for a discussion on the immediate and emerging impacts of COVID-19 on business and society.


Panelists included Aron Cramer, President and CEO, BSR; Chris Coulter, CEO, GlobeScan; Clarissa Lins, Founding Partner, Catavento; and Solitaire Townsend, Co-Founder, Futerra. The webinar discussion was moderated by Mark Lee, Executive Director, SustainAbility and Partner, ERM. Below we present some of the more striking themes and key takeaways that emerged from the discussion.

Different regions, different crises

We began the webinar by asking each panelist how they are themselves and what has struck them about local responses to the virus. While a broad question, it was insightful to hear what the panelists shared with the global audience listening in from nearly twenty countries. Solitaire Townsend in Bristol, England, mentioned the tension she’s felt due to noticing different responses to stories like Captain Tom Moore’s fundraising for the NHS as compared to the experience of immigrant frontline workers trying to reconcile being applauded today after being portrayed negatively by some fellow citizens and politicians just weeks earlier. From Canada, Chris Coulter commented on the encouraging response he’s seen from people who take extra care to remain friendly but separate on the sidewalks. Adapting in Rio de Janeiro, Clarissa Lins suggested South Americans are struggling with a cultural overhaul that requires far more distancing than normal for Brazilians and other Latin Americans. She also expressed concern over the disproportionate impacts experienced by the 40% of Brazil’s population that works informally in the service economy, where being forbidden to work is tantamount to being forbidden to earn — and to eat. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Aron Cramer called out the relatively low infection rate for a region that was one of the first to adopt shelter-in-place restrictions, and expressed pride in the response of local and regional government officials as well as the degree to which people have cooperated with rules designed to flatten the infection curve.

Inconvenient truths

Despite an understanding within the US government that what was happening at the beginning of the crisis should not be ignored, there was a failure to take action. Although it is easy to dismiss inconvenient and slow-moving truths, like the threats of climate change and inequality, the effects of doing so are devastating; the coronavirus has demonstrated this in an accelerated fashion. Here Aron described the value of scenario planning, pointing to how countries like South Korea learned from the SARS pandemic and were relatively well prepared to address the COVID-19 crisis. Aron also emphasized the value of investing in resilience — in supply chains, workforces and more — and commented on the ways in which sustainability skills and experience like systems thinking might be uniquely suited to this moment.

COVID-19 responses embody the kind of action needed on climate

We don’t want the global response to climate change, a slow-moving threat, to exactly mirror that of COVID-19, a fast-moving threat — the virus response has been too much forced by circumstance. Still, Soli noted that there are lessons to be learned today regarding how we must react to climate change cohesively and with an eye on the long game. Chris also pointed out COVID-19 and climate similarities, including that both require we coordinate messages between authorities like government, NGOs and public health officials; maintain our foundational trust in science; recognize how interdependent our world is and the mutual benefit of working together towards a common good; and lean on the “precautionary principle,” knowing that unintended consequences can be extreme and that inculcating knowledge gained through experience in future planning is necessary.

Quotation mark With the economic fallout of COVID-19 threatening to push half a billion more people into poverty, sustainable development remains exceedingly important — in fact, more important than ever. Quotation mark

Brands need a “servant” mindset

The panel also talked about how to undertake marketing at this time, commenting that the brands now seen as most valuable are those that are obviously serving society. They referenced examples of fashion brands pivoting to make personal protective equipment, alcohol manufacturers creating hand sanitizer and manufacturers shifting production to ventilators and other medical equipment. Soli pointed out how amazing it is to think that, so recently, none of these brands would have connected their purpose to serving the healthcare industry, which Clarisssa underscored by saying that “service” may be one of the ways we judge companies after the crisis.

The sustainability agenda

Our panelists stressed the diversity and complexity encompassed by sustainable development. With the economic fallout of COVID-19 threatening to push half a billion more people into poverty, sustainable development remains exceedingly important — in fact, more important than ever. As Aron pointed out, the principles of sustainability are foundational to building resilient organizations. He encouraged companies to not continue business as usual, but to boldly adapt. Mark took off his moderator cap to underscore the notion that sustainability teams bring three elements currently of the utmost importance: a systemic point of view, focus on resiliency and future orientation.

What the future holds

When asked what a post-pandemic world might look like, panelists were quick to acknowledge it will take considerable time to understand which prior ways of doing things should rebound and which wholly new approaches prove the best ways to rebuild. Clarissa suggested we will need to reorient, for example by thinking anew about how we price and value different goods and services. Chris noted that this is a time to look back at conversations from the 2008 financial crisis to see how we fared after the somewhat similar challenges that emerged a decade ago. Soli was optimistic that the humanity evident in business and society over the past few months will endure and perhaps help reduce the psychological distance we sometimes perceive between the economy and people. And Aron said that while the world looks different, our values, principles and priorities do not.

This webinar touched on many of the impacts of the current global pandemic on people and business, as well as the anxieties we feel about future unknowns. Our panelists and audience looked to what sustainability can teach us about weathering this storm and what is to come, not searching for silver linings but certainly ready to apply the foundational principles of sustainable development to the future we hope to create.