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We can't let Covid distract us from the climate crisis

The latest edition of the GlobeScan/SustainAbility Sustainability Leaders survey has just been released. Running since 1997, the study asked over 700 experts from business, government, NGOs and academia to evaluate progress on the sustainability agenda, and the companies and organizations they perceived to be leaders in this space.

When it comes to this corporate leadership on the sustainability question, 2020 saw Unilever come out on top for the tenth year running: a dominant position that is to be applauded and something that has received not unexpected PR coverage.

Unilever seen as world leaders in corporate sustainability
Unilever seen as world leaders in corporate sustainability

However, tho a clearly positive story from Unilever's perspective, the focus on them has arguably hidden some more significant findings within the study that are worth flagging.

First up, where's everyone else?

The question asked was

What specific companies do you think are leaders in integrating sustainability into their business strategy?

With the option of mentioning up to 3 companies.

Unilever are doing a lot in this area, and also do a good job of talking up their endeavours. But the fact they are the only corporation that a significant proportion of experts see as being up to speed on sustainability is a concern.

Some of this doesn't quite make sense (sustainability is Patagonia's reason for being after all, and Microsoft's carbon negative ambition headline grabbing), some may be due to size of business and the fact that this study favours big, global corporations over small, local trailblazers, and some may be a function of organisations not communicating their actions well enough (which is an important consideration when it comes to wider adoption - don't be backward in coming forward!).

It might also simply be a case of respondent laziness...although you would hope those recruited as experts would go beyond the first name they think of when commenting on their specialist subject.

Or alternatively, and disappointingly, it's just a reflection of reality: that most businesses really aren't pulling their weight when it comes to fighting the climate crisis. Which is the truth suggested by answers to another question

How would you rate the performance of each of the following types of organizations in terms of its contribution to progress on sustainable development since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio?
Businesses, financiers and governments are seen to perform poorly on the sustainability question
Businesses, financiers and governments are seen to perform poorly on the sustainability question

Despite all the noise we hear from many, many businesses about their sustainability actions, only 17% of experts rated the private sector as 'excellent' in this area. And 42% rated them 'poor'. Which may explain the difficulty experts have in naming names: maybe they're simply not there. At least as far as big corporations go. The puffery that can dupe us shoppers in the supermarket failing to wash with those who know what's what. And if that wasn't concerning enough, it's a situation made worse still by the 61% poor rating for national governments: those who should be leading the charge are running in the opposite direction.

But there's another finding from the study, even more significant and just as worrying, which is getting lost in all the loved up coverage of Unilever's performance: the impact of Covid on sustainability efforts.

Here it is important to know when this research happened. Fieldwork was conducted between May 11th and July 2nd: i.e. at the peak of the Covid crisis when global lockdown was in full effect. Despite this, and mirroring conclusions of the World Economics Forum in their 2020 Global Risks report, infectious disease was not seen as urgent by these experts when compared with other sustainable development challenges the world faces.

Infectious disease is not seen as one of the most urgent sustainability issues the world faces
Infectious disease is not seen as one of the most urgent sustainability issues the world faces

Yes it saw the biggest year on year increase (unsurprising given the circumstances), but as a threat infectious disease was still only no.13 on the list...and a long way below the top 3 of climate change, biodiversity loss and water scarcity.

With the important point here (and something we must never forget) being that pretty much everything on this list, including disease, is a knock on consequence of the no.1 issue: the global crisis precipitated by climate change.

At the same time tho, whilst disease per se isn't seen as urgent it is obviously current and very salient. And for this reason, most experts saw the Covid pandemic as having a negative impact on sustainability efforts (netting out the positive and negative impacts gives a score of -83). In part this is because of direct consequences that have set the task back or created new hurdles, but primarily it's because the immediacy of Covid has pushed sustainability down the pecking order. Particularly the drive of governments to get their economies going again by any means necessary, rather than building this round a green recovery plan.

The negative impacts of Covid on sustainability significantly outweigh the positives
The negative impacts of Covid on sustainability significantly outweigh the positives

This distraction from and relegation of the climate crisis is the most significant challenge we now face. Not to dismiss in any way the devastating impact Covid has had on many lives, but we can't let our short-term responses get in the way of the bigger picture.

Because Covid isn't a short term issue that will go away. And if we treat it as such, this will not only open all of us up to more, and potentially worse pandemics, but widen the impact of other climate change consequences that are already a lived reality of many developing nations to those of us who have always thought these were things that only happened to other people (or polar bears).

So yes, act on Covid. But act in a way that is green and fair and sustainable for the long term, not just pragmatically effective in the short term.

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