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How COVID-19 Sparked Renewed Interest in Sustainability

One effect of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a spark in renewed climate and sustainability commitments from brands and companies.
By Andrew Rurik

Almost a year ago, the first COVID-19 stay-at-home orders were issued, forcing a pause and a recalibration in practically all of our daily rhythms and routines. This massive shift also brought many long-simmering issues to the forefront: race, injustice, inequality, and the intersections of these systemic problems. Another issue that caught national attention over the last year was renewed climate and sustainability commitments from brands and businesses.

But why? What prompted this accelerated push for corporate commitments to climate issues and sustainability during an international health crisis? Dr. Gayle Schueller, 3M’s chief sustainability officer, weighed in.

“These types of corporate commitments have been accelerating for quite a while because climate change and other sustainability factors meaningfully impact people’s lives and, ultimately, businesses around the world,” Schueller said. “As a result of the pandemic, people are becoming more grounded in what’s important to them as individuals. This includes taking a closer look at what’s really happening in our environment.”

As many watched the world from their windows and worked with colleagues in Zoom meetings during the early months of the global COVID-19 shutdown, reports of dramatic air quality improvements began surfacing. Connecting the dots between a sudden, near-global pause in commuting and travel wasn’t remarkably difficult. “There was a swift, positive impact on air quality, which in turn had a significant, positive impact on human health,” Schueller said. “It has been a wakeup call for individuals, as well as corporations, to do more in terms of protecting the health of our planet and its people.”

In 3M’s annual State of Science Index (SOSI), two-thirds of the respondents indicated that adverse environmental impacts are the second most alarming consequence of a world without science. Only “a higher risk of health issues” ranked higher.

However, this confluence of crises means that science has rarely been far from the world’s collective consciousness over the past year. The COVID-19 crisis has helped to renew interest and desire for answers, access, and actionable steps, too. “Science has always been at the forefront of making changes for the better,” Schueller said. “I’m not alone in thinking science can help us solve the world’s sustainability challenges.”

But with the distribution of three different vaccines underway and an end on the horizon, does a national return to “normal life” mean a return to business as usual for these companies without as much scrutiny placed on sustainability goals?

Schueller’s answer was no: In fact, she sees the commitments accelerating as the advancements in sustainability technology keep coming. “What’s exciting about this moment in time is that there is an increased awareness and momentum to make a difference,” she explained. “This gives us more opportunities to collaborate with others to make an even bigger impact. We’re able to work with governments, NGOs, and other corporations to drive real change in the sustainability space.”

To that end, 3M has established its Sustainability Value Commitment (SVC), which mandates that every product entering the product commercialization process must demonstrate how it drives impact for the greater good.

“Consumers and customers are driving meaningful change by increasing their focus and speaking out on the sustainability and ESG [environmental, social and governance] strategies put forward by corporations,” Schueller said. From her point of view, the open dialog between businesses and customers, with companies understanding their customers’ priorities and goals and then collaborating with them to implement changes, is vital. “If we can all help our customers find ways to achieve their goals for a sustainable future, we all win.”

Image credit: Anastasiia Chepinska/Unsplash

Andrew Rurik headshot

Andrew Rurik is a filmmaker, focusing on brand strategy for brands and businesses working on conservation issues, as well as sustainability technology and innovation. He's often found in the mountains or at the beach with dog, Kona. He likes his music too loud and subscribes to too many podcasts. Andrew is also a fan of great stories, great movies, and great whiskey. Learn more about him through is agency, Third Shift Creative, and you can subscribe to his podcast, too.


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