Every fall semester, John Byrd, a senior instructor in CU Denver’s Business School, teaches an online graduate course titled Business and the Natural Environment. His course covers a range of topics in sustainable business, including many related to climate change. But this year, in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests, Byrd decided it was time to redesign his course. His working title: “Business for a Better World.”
His goal is to help broaden students’ definition of sustainability, he said. Gone are the days when corporate sustainability meant reducing a carbon footprint or switching to green packaging. The pandemic, paired with social injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement, has forced businesses to redefine their practices and beliefs—both environmentally and socially. Faculty in the Business School agree that this, in some ways, could be seen as a silver lining of the pandemic with lasting impacts.
“For so long, we’ve thought of sustainability largely in terms of the environment, but I think companies are going to start thinking much more carefully about the social aspects—workplace issues, equality, discrimination,” said Byrd, PhD. “There’s a lot of hard work to be done, and I think business, and the Business School, should be at the center of it.”
COVID-19 Effects to Environmental Sustainability
The impact of the pandemic on corporate environmental sustainability could go several ways. Byrd predicts a short-term decrease in corporate America’s carbon emissions as a result, and researchers foresee a similar trend.
According to an article published in National Geographic, in early April, daily global carbon emissions were down by 17 percent compared to last year. But as of June 11, data show that they were only about 5 percent lower than at the same point in 2019, even though normal activity had not yet fully restarted. There is a risk of carbon emissions surging following the pandemic, as a similar trend occurred following the 2007 – 08 financial crisis, the article reports.
A number of companies, particularly large tech companies, are moving forward with big purchases of green energy using PPAs or VPPAs (Power Purchase Agreements and Virtual Power Purchase Agreements), Byrd pointed out. But, he said, “we could also see companies relaxing their sustainability efforts. In part it makes sense, you want to be able to keep people employed. It depends on the culture of the company and how authentic their commitment to sustainability or equality was.”
Faculty in CU Denver’s Business School agree that the COVID-19 pandemic also presents an opportunity for corporate businesses to make lasting change in order to retain quality employees and consumers. “I think climate change is clearly what especially younger, highly educated employees expect out of corporations,” said Blair Gifford, director of the international health management certificate in the Business School’s health administration MBA programs and founder of the Center for Global Health. He added: “You want to keep your employees happy and productive and employees, vice versa, want to be with organizations who are doing well and active in climate change.”
Gifford, PhD, highlighted another potential benefit: the shift to remote working means less need for corporate building spaces, which consume about 35 percent to 40 percent of coal-produced energy. Buildings and commercial real estate are currently in a downward trend as more people reconsider living in dense urban areas.
“Corporations are going to lessen their office space as more employees will work remotely,” Gifford said.
A Catalyst for Social Change
The pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement have caused corporate giants to take a stance on social justice issues. Whether it’s protecting employees’ health by allowing them to work remotely—Google recently announced it would allow employees to work from home through July 2021—or ensuring equity and diversity in the workplace, this shift can be seen as a positive outcome, as long as businesses follow through on their word.
“A lot of companies have made statements,” Byrd said. “I don’t know what they are going to do in terms of changes, but we have to hope that it’s going to be something more than running employees through a training.”
This year’s events have also changed consumer attitudes, shifting the focus to local businesses and front-line workers who have taken an especially hard hit.
“In these kinds of times, we reset the dial and with any luck people will say ‘I’ve got a limited number of dollars and time in the world and I want to make the most of both of those,’” Byrd said. “The long-term effects are going to be that people have had to adjust their lives, and in some cases drastically. For some of us it means reassessing priorities.”
Gifford echoed the sentiment, emphasizing the need for a shift from what has historically been an individualistic society and corporate social responsibility increasing in scope to encompass many key social issues.
“I think COVID has actually in some ways forced us to reflect and become more aware of other people,” Gifford said. “I think it’s turned back the individualist orientation of American society and increased the need for corporations to be progressive.”