There have been rumblings in recent weeks that corporate sustainability initiatives will be pushed aside or abandoned in favor of pure economic survival. But that’s not how Matt Hill, CEO of One Tree Planted, a nonprofit focused on global reforestation, sees it.
One of the largest tree planting organizations in North America, the organization said that during 2019 it planted over 4 million trees worldwide, thanks in part to successful partnerships with businesses. Hill says he is “busier than ever” despite the COVID-19 pandemic, connecting with companies like Nestlé, which recently pledged to plant trees across Latin America, as well as AstraZeneca, with its 50 million tree initiative that the company says part of its five-year commitment to global reforestation.
“Our followers are fiercely passionate about change,” Hill told TriplePundit. “If anything, the pandemic has highlighted how important human action really is. This is a wake-up call, a glimpse into a cleaner planet. And it’s not lost on us how the unity witnessed here in light of the pandemic can be applied towards addressing climate issues as well.”
Companies are facing undeniable economic pressures due to the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean sustainability programs are the first on the chopping block. If they are, it is likely those brands that used sustainability as a marketing tool rather than making it integral to their processes, Francois Souchet, Lead of Make Fashion Circular at the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, told Forbes. “The closer (sustainability and investment) are to the core and the more integrated, the harder they are to cut off.”
Even if sustainability drops off the agenda temporarily, it should rebound, according to many business and sustainability leaders. In dozens of recent conversations with Fortune 500 chief sustainability officers, Politico found them to be “surprisingly unified, agreeing that the pandemic has accelerated their environmental plans rather than putting them on the back burner.”
For Hill, now is the time to lean in on corporate sustainability, as it’s important to keep employees engaged when so many of them are working remotely. “Just because it feels like our world has come to a screeching halt, and in many ways it has, that doesn’t mean climate change will take a break. As we come off of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day last month, it’s important to reflect on how the businesses of today can influence the next 50 years,” he said.
“Humans are responsible for the state of the earth, and businesses are equipped to make a big impact, quickly. It’s also our experience that corporate sustainability programs help build team morale internally and give employees a common and positive goal outside of their everyday workflow,” Hill continued. “Now, probably more than ever, your team is likely looking for something to rally behind – even if they rally remotely.”
Much more than a feel-good initiative to engage employees and local communities, reforesting the planet is critical to reverse biodiversity loss and head off the worst of climate change. According to a study published in Science by the Institute of Integrative Biology in Zurich, Switzerland, the solution to climate change is to plant one trillion trees. And especially timely now, the majority of research shows that deforestation contributes to zoonotic diseases, as infectious disease researcher Amy Vittor shared on One Tree Planted's video podcast. In addition, Nigel Sizer of the Rainforest Alliance recently told Ethical Corporation that to prevent future pandemics, “no company should source from recently deforested land.”
“It comes down to the encroachment of wildlife habitats,” Hill says. “The more we come into close contact with wildlife the more susceptible we are to pathogens. But reforestation is all about re-establishing nature after some disturbance, create more habitats for wildlife, re-establish native forests, and to achieve a balance between nature and people.”
For Hill, simply planting a tree—or a hundred or a million—is an important way for business to keep their sustainability programs rooted in an uncertain time. “My advice would be that you don’t have to come up with a huge daunting plan to get started, just decide that it’s something you want to start and take the first step. Plant some trees, share your story, get your team on board. This is a great time to pause and plan for the future, so make it a future you feel good about.”
Image credit: One Tree Planted
Based in southwest Florida, Amy has written about sustainability and the Triple Bottom Line for over 20 years, specializing in sustainability reporting, policy papers and research reports for multinational clients in pharmaceuticals, consumer goods, ICT, tourism and other sectors. She also writes for Ethical Corporation and is a contributor to Creating a Culture of Integrity: Business Ethics for the 21st Century. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn.