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Recovery from pandemic will be built on a foundation of sustainability

“The pandemic has afforded us a unique opportunity to increase the pace at which we progress the green agenda and allows us to build a more sustainable future for our customers and the society in which we operate.”

“The pandemic has afforded us a unique opportunity to increase the pace at which we progress the green agenda and allows us to build a more sustainable future for our customers and the society in which we operate.”

 

Businesses are finally coming round to the idea that sustainability now equates with longevity. A recent study from Nielsen found that 81 per cent of global customers feel strongly about the need for companies to implement programmes that meaningfully address environmental concerns.

This enhanced consumer scrutiny has led many companies to make serious efforts to boost their green credentials but has Covid-19 stalled this much-needed progress? The widespread disruption caused by the pandemic has left many businesses struggling to simply stay afloat and may have – understandably – led to the interruption of sustainability initiatives. Yet some argue it has been a boon for business sustainability as fewer people commute to work and the move towards the paperless office has been accelerated almost overnight.

Orlagh Reynolds is a postdoctoral researcher with the Beacon Bioeconomy Research Centre and the UCD College of Business. She believes that the eventual recovery from the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic will be built on a foundation of sustainability, with many businesses having already adopted the mantra of “build back better”.

“Having to adapt business models to national lockdown regulations, and possibly due to Brexit preparations, means Irish businesses have built-in the resilience and agility needed for sustainability. I’m hopeful that businesses will recognise and build on these capabilities and put them to use to that end,” Reynolds says.

The pandemic also forced some business owners to take stock and re-orient their businesses, she adds.

“They have looked at what really matters to people in recent times. Take the gin and whiskey distilleries who started to produce hand sanitiser when there was a shortage, or the emergence of start-ups and social enterprises providing e-commerce platforms, home delivery services and mental health support. This type of rethinking is needed for real sustainability and to stand out against competitors post-Covid.”

Mary Whitelaw is AIB’s director of corporate affairs, strategy and sustainability. She explains that the bank’s own research consistently supports a consumer preference for brands who are making sustainability a central part of how they do business. The pandemic has not served to dampen this enthusiasm, while businesses with decent green credentials have continued to thrive.

“We believe – supported by various data points – that companies who work to embed this approach into their business attract the support of a loyal customer base and retain talent in their workforce. In our most recent experience, the green lending we have done to date – across both business and personal customers – has proven the most resilient part of our balance sheet during the Covid-19 pandemic, highlighting that green lending is both good for the planet but also good for business,” she says.

AIB is embedding this thinking into its own operations, having committed to being carbon neutral using a net-zero approach by 2030, cutting greenhouse gas emissions to as close to zero as possible through elimination of carbon rather than offsetting it. It also has an ambition for 70 per cent of its new lending to be green by 2030 and its entire lending book to be green by 2040.

‘Key objective’

Owen Keogh, head of corporate social responsibility with Lidl Ireland and Northern Ireland, says that despite the disruption caused by the crisis, the retailer still prioritised its many sustainability initiatives, maintaining the momentum of its “Better Tomorrow” corporate social responsibility strategy. In recent months, it has launched environmental initiatives such as the first pollinator-friendly store in Youghal in partnership with East Cork Biodiversity Network, and it became the first Irish retailer to launch an own-brand range of Fairtrade chocolate bars.

The pandemic has simply served to reinforce the key role Lidl plays in the local community, including crucial environmental issues, he adds.

“Since the onset of the pandemic, our stores have been particularly busy and the main thing we have been focusing on is colleague and customer safety but sustainability remains at the heart of its business model. Sustainability is a key objective in our five-year strategic plan so it has very much remained in focus. We have progressed different parts of the agenda over the past few months so, thankfully, I don’t think it has stifled our momentum or our motivation behind sustainability. If anything it’s become all the more important,” says Keogh.

This is echoed by Whitelaw, who says the pandemic has only served to highlight the urgency of the climate emergency, and has underscored the interconnectedness between a healthy environment and society and a healthy economy. Covid or no Covid, this is the decade for climate action, she asserts.

“The pandemic has afforded us a unique opportunity to increase the pace at which we progress the green agenda and allows us to build a more sustainable future for our customers and the society in which we operate. We cannot rest on our laurels, we must constantly challenge ourselves to do more to leave a greener planet for our children and our children’s children. This will be better for business, and better for the planet.”

But while European leaders are adamant that we must begin a “green recovery”, this has to be realistic, Reynolds says. To build sustainability into the post-Covid recovery and unlock the economic value of this, systems thinking, new technical expertise and market and regulatory incentives are needed.

“To survive into the future, far beyond this crisis, businesses need to be looking at circularity at every level, from replacement of fossil-based, non-renewable materials with secondary bio-based renewables, to rethinking of entire business models. It needs to be a collaborative effort from every level, top-down and bottom-up efforts to make a green recovery realistic.”