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A return to “normal” after the pandemic? Aim higher

As global business leaders respond to multiple concurrent crises, returning to normal is not an option.

“Sustainability” can be an amorphous term in the business world, encompassing issues ranging from environmental preservation to supply chain alignment. But sustainability has taken on new meaning in the midst of the current confluence of crises—the coronavirus pandemic, a depressed global economy, regular climate-related catastrophes, and systemic inequality, especially related to race and gender.  

The disruptions of 2020 have exposed fundamental flaws across systems and society at large, beyond the point of quick fixes or tweaks. As this unusually consequential year keeps unfolding, much of the general public longs for a return to normalcy. However, a greater realization has emerged that what was once “normal” is no longer adequate. This calamitous moment has presented business, government, and civic leaders with an opportunity to rebuild societal structures that are smarter, more resilient, and more equitable and inclusive for all—in other words, a better and ultimately more sustainable normal.

“While 2020 has brought a level of global disruption we haven’t seen in the recent past, it also presents an enormous opportunity for leaders to reset and realign their values and commitments,” says Punit Renjen, CEO of Deloitte Global. “Now is the time for us to come together to create a better, more sustainable world—one in which business focuses on both profit and purpose; people bring out the best in each other; we begin to mend our planet; and organizations adopt a resiliency to prepare them for the next crisis. For if we simply return to ‘business as normal,’ we, as a society, will have failed.”

Deloitte recently conducted global surveys of business leaders, millennials and Gen Zs—cohorts that together represent the majority of today’s workers and consumers—on a range of topics. While the respondents indicated the need to move the needle on sustainability issues, particularly those currently roiling the world, they specifically honed in on climate change and the environment.

For instance, 90% of executives agree climate change will negatively affect their organizations, and nearly half believe addressing it is a top priority for leaders. Yet, despite this urgency, gaps in progress and action remain. That sentiment is reflected among millennials and Gen Zs, 80% of whom think governments and businesses need to make greater efforts to protect the environment.

Escalating climate-related issues have placed aspects of corporate behavior under considerable scrutiny. Key stakeholder groups, including investors, consumers, employees, suppliers, and communities, are increasingly holding companies accountable for their role in driving climate change and are calling for them to take action by delivering on their commitments and creating more sustainable business strategies. “CEOs are expressing a greater need to adopt actionable policies within their companies,” says Alexa Yiğit, head of sustainable finance at CEO Investor Forum, part of Chief Executives for Corporate Purpose (CECP), a CEO-led coalition comprising more than 200 companies. “We see sustainability as a key macro force in shaping business decision-making and innovation.”

In August 2019, 181 CEOs signed a momentous statement from the Business Roundtable, maintaining that public companies have a fiduciary responsibility to consider the sustainability concerns—including climate change and the environment—of all their stakeholders, not only shareholders.

Organizations can start to move from talk to action by “operating green”—for example, committing to reducing greenhouse gas emissions company-wide to achieve net-zero levels before 2050, the timeframe set by the Paris Agreement. They can also educate employees about their impact—including their choices around what they consume, use, and buy—to encourage them to lessen their output at home and work. And organizations can also engage their ecosystems—such as clients and customers, suppliers, and business partners—to tackle climate change at a systems and operations level.

“The world has reached a tipping point on societal issues. People around the world are demanding action—and this time feels different,” says Renjen. “Leaders must seize this opportunity to protect our planet and build stronger, more equitable communities.”