Op-Ed: Safeguarding Sustainability Post Covid-19

The last Global Financial Crisis taught us that sustainability risks being left behind in times of crisis. CO's Head of Marketing, Qiulae Wong, highlights why it must survive this time.

Although it feels like sustainability has only entered the global conscience in recent years, this movement has been bubbling away at the fringes of society for decades.

2018-19 wasn’t the first time we declared that ‘sustainability is going mainstream’. The early and mid-2000s brought us the UN Global Compact, a framework for sustainable and responsible business; it brought us Al Gore and ‘An Inconvenient Truth’; even the Ethical Fashion Forum - CO’s predecessor - which was established in 2006 was a child of the last eco-renaissance. All signs were pointing to a positive shift in the way business would be done. 

That was, until the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) hit in 2008. 

In the desperation to rebuild global economies, businesses turned back to the familiar comfort of capitalism and perpetual growth - pushing the beginnings of their sustainability and CSR strategies to the back office to collect dust. 

As Mike Barry, former director of sustainability at Marks & Spencer recently put it: “The largesse of society sticking plastered the old system, rewarded the actors who’d brought it to its knees whilst turning a blind eye to globalisation’s structural failings.”

During this decade of ‘rebuilding’, carbon emissions continued to grow, consumption accelerated and we enjoyed the increasing benefits of instant gratification until catastrophes like the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013 woke us to the human cost of our ways, and until the ‘Greta effect’ made its way into our homes and collective consciousness. 

Covid-19 has the potential to reshape capitalism and the role that governments play in building a resilient and equitable society. 

And so businesses have recently begun dusting off those good intentions of the early-2000s - with some of fashion’s biggest names committing openly and transparently to science-based environmental targets and joining global and regional alliances on workers’ rights. 

However, just as we have been beginning to see the seeds of promise once again, the world has been hurtled into an ultimate test of tests with Covid-19. 

So what does this mean for the future of sustainability and ethics in business? Will it once again be filed away with all the other ‘nice to have’ ideas? Or can we do something different this time to safeguard sustainable business whilst we rebuild the economy?

What does feel different this time around are three significant trends that appear to be driving business transformation for the better and could be further reinforced by the current crisis. 

First is consumer power. Pre Covid-19, we were beginning to witness real signs that the conscious consumer is playing a more and more important role in shaping the way businesses operate. Global movements like Extinction Rebellion, Fashion Revolution, and the School Strike for Climate were rallying millions of individuals to put people and the planet first. 

And businesses were starting to listen - the SS’20 Fashion Weeks showed bubbling signs of progress, and Copenhagen Fashion Summit was due to discuss the controversial yet crucial topic of growth (or de-growth) at its 2020 event which has subsequently been postponed. 

This crisis has the potential to solidify this movement even further as consumers rediscover what it means to care for their communities and wider world. They will be left feeling more empowered than ever to demand ethical practices from businesses. 

Secondly, governments and global leaders are swiftly learning that systems which don’t protect society sufficiently will buckle in times of crisis. Covid-19 has the potential to reshape capitalism and the role that governments play in building a resilient and equitable society. 

With supply chains suffering everywhere due to cancelled orders, legislators may recognise a need to ensure retailers have a duty of care to their supply chains in times of crisis and should be bound by law to this. 

Lastly, the inspiring generation of purpose-driven entrepreneurs will continue to flourish. Tired of waiting for bureaucratic systems to solve pressing social and environmental problems, entrepreneurs will seize the opportunity to lead in this space, demonstrating that business can, and should have a responsibility beyond making profits - it should exist to serve the community in which it operates. 

As the new wave of compassionate consumers emerges - having rediscovered the importance of caring for the elderly, the joy of a local nature walk, the value of education for our kids - businesses will continue to reap the rewards by being genuinely aligned with these values. 

So, we have a choice. And it is still a choice because these futures are entirely dependent on us. We can choose to revert to business as usual pre-Covid-19, or we can learn from the mistakes of the past and use this opportunity to do things differently.

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Qiulae Wong

Aotearoa New Zealand Manager at B Lab Australia & Aotearoa New Zealand