With reports of air pollution vanishing and animals returning to cities, there is a sense that COVID-19, though highly traumatic for the human populations, is a boon for the natural world.  Alongside viral social media outlets, credible news outlets are rightly reporting (and celebrating) this in, a time without much to celebrate. In reality, the story is more complex and nuanced across sectors, with stakeholders and consumers changing their behaviour and rebalancing their expectations. We should consider the impact on sustainability across two periods: the short term – where almost all government, media and consumer attention is being focused on arresting the spread – and the long term, where a ‘new normal’ is being established.

Short term

A vacuum in leadership from the top.
In many cases, in the immediate term, the foot has been taken off the pedal with pressure from government and regulators. Governments are distracted and busy focusing directly on the pandemic; new legislation is on hold with both the House of Lords and the House of Commons currently closed, alongside other global legislatures. Events such as COP, which would have applied additional pressure to government timelines, have been cancelled or postponed. At the same time, governments are acknowledging that their reprioritisation is being mirrored in business, waiving or exempting businesses from existing sustainability expectations. Some US States and Canadian Provinces have temporarily halted enforcement actions on retailers who suspend can and bottle redemption activities for the duration of the outbreak. Investor days are also being cancelled or delayed.  For brands which have historically followed external pressure, there is an opportunity to get ahead. Define what sustainability will mean for you in the coming era and be ready and prepared to voice this to regulators, legislators and investors proactively when space opens up for this discussion.

Consumer and consumer service re-prioritisation.
Many consumer-facing organisations and consumers have cast aside some sustainability measures, particularly where there is any sanitation or health risk. In the UK, we have seen a decline in the purchase of fresh, unpackaged produce, in favour of products with a longer shelf life as consumers struggle to get food delivered. Across a number of markets, the frequency of curbside recycling has reduced to cut the impact on those people directly involved in the manual recycling process. Engineers cannot access properties to install renewable energy sources or smart meters. At the same time, many retail brands are rapidly losing revenue. Where sustainable sourcing had been seen by some as a costly nice to have, this may be cast aside. Quietly, the term ‘sustainability’ is being redefined to include (or upweight) measures on hygiene. Brands need to consider how they tell this story in the long term, as experts are agreed that our concerns regarding sanitation are likely to outlive the peak of the virus – and we may never return to our previous unthinking behavioural patterns.

Medium to long term

Where there is some clarity on immediate activities, this diminishes when looking to the future.  However, expectations have been re-set on a number of fronts, which brands should consider as having a potentially long term impact on their activities.

Expectations of brands will be higher.
When faced with an immediate global crisis, we have seen some exemplary brand behaviour – prioritising collaboration, immediate human impact, and pace. With a news media extensively reporting on this, and readers engaging with the news at rates well above normal, awareness of this activity is high. As consumers now understand how it is possible for brands to act, expectations have been raised. What does this mean for brands? Brand behaviour must continue to meet these new standards. Product and messaging must sustain this focus on true human impact, apace, with unexpected collaboration at its core.

Consumer behaviour will change.
Behavioural scientists know that after extreme shocks, it is likely that human behaviour never fully rebounds. As more events move online, we build stronger local communities, and we use all the food in our fridge, our behaviour is naturally changing in more sustainable directions. Out of necessity, we are travelling less, engaging with nature more, and producing less food waste. When the world ‘re-opens’, much of this will revert – but it is also likely much will not. Brands should consider this period as an experiment. Which sustainable moves – though made out of necessity – have proved either neutral or beneficial in their impact? Can your organisation travel less, invest more in its immediate community, or hold more meetings online?

Emphasising the ‘S’ in ESG.
The COVID-19 outbreak has brought to the fore our shared humanity, both in terms of our struggles and our need for human contact.  For many businesses, this has led to an uptick in their employee and community communications, with increased transparency on their expectations for the business and the impact this will have on stakeholder groups. Human wellbeing sits at the heart of much of these communications. Brands will be expected to continue to meet this heightened expectation with ongoing engagement and transparency, focused on the wellbeing of the communities they directly impact.

Supranational collaboration.
Global leadership has had to collaborate as almost never before to respond to the crisis, sharing expertise, data and resources. Optimistic commentators argue that there is the potential for this to continue, to address the shared climate risk. What does this mean for brands? There is the potential for increased regulatory consistency on climate issues, simplifying brand decision making. However, this will inevitably lead to outliers companies will need to engage effectively to secure their markets. Brands need to be ready for a changed regulatory structure and have the flexibility to engage at multiple levels.

Sustainable sourcing challenges.
Medium-term disruption can be expected in the developed world as some supply chains rebound, for example for recycled content. While COVID-19’s impact on the developing world is as yet unknown, it is expected to be grave in both human and economic terms. Dependency on sustainable sourcing from many countries may be an enhanced risk. Brands must consider a two-pronged approach: investing in supplier communities to support their rebound, while locating short term sustainable suppliers to fill the immediate gap.