The urge to make business operations more environmentally friendly is not new. For years now, industry bodies, governments, and even investors have been driving the idea that business can do better if it is more sustainable. COVID-19 underscored the truth of that notion: across various corporate indices, companies with higher ESG ratings have seen less impact on their performance. The FTSE UK 100 ESG Leaders Index, for example, fell 27.3 percent—but the FTSE UK 100 Index, which does not take ESG performance into account, fell 33.7 percent. In the Asia Pacific region, one study by HSBC found that companies focusing on climate issues performed 13.6 percent better than the regional index.
It takes sweeping corporate strategy and systemic policy change for a company to achieve that level of environmentally sound and sustainable practices. But there's no reason why broader business overhauls cannot be accompanied by smaller but equally meaningful actions at the workplace level. COVID-19 has provided a variety of opportunities and challenges in that respect: here are a few areas that stand out.
Cut back on the use of disposables and packaging
The need for increased hygiene means, unfortunately, the need for more disposables and more individual packaging, and in the workplace, this has manifested particularly at mealtimes. Food delivery or takeaway options help to keep employees safe as that they do not have to risk leaving the office to eat, but the amount of single-use food packaging has skyrocketed as a result.
Fortunately, there are several ways of addressing this. For a start, companies with larger offices can consider catering services rather than allowing employees to expense on-demand food delivery. Alessandro Voltolini, CEO and co-founder of online food catering marketplace SmartBite, told People Matters that this would definitely be a more environmentally friendly option. "On-demand food delivery is, by definition, much more intensive in wastage, since it specializes in providing a very small number of meals to one location in the shortest time possible," he explained. "For contract catering services, which deals in larger and recurring orders, there is a lot less plastic being used in the way they are prepared and packaged."
Companies can also push the use of reusables rather than disposables—something that Voltolini says is already surprisingly common, with most employees preferring to use their own cutlery rather than the single-use plastic cutlery provided by caterers.
This can be further encouraged by creating an environment conducive to the use of reusables, according to Carlotta Wong, co-founder and managing director of green consumer goods company Lexngo. "A basic kitchen facility with heating equipment such as microwave, and cleaning basin is great to start," she said. On top of that, she suggested involving nearby food outlets to incentivize the use of reusables through discounts if possible—bearing in mind safety and hygiene considerations, of course.
"When an employer creates a positive green environment with a focus on using less, the employee will find a synergy to waste less, which not only has a positive spin-off on solely introducing reusables into the work environment, but also on critical thinking about the companies resources and its economical use," she said.
Take advantage of digitization to cut back on resource use
Remote work is slowly but surely forcing companies to digitize their manual processes. The use of physical documents is now a slow and clunky procedure, with even more chance for hiccups—such as lost or delayed mail—and more difficulty in rectifying errors than before. However, this presents the opportunity to reduce the amount of paper and other physical resources used for various purposes. Depending on the source, statistics suggest that one office worker might use between 10,000 and 14,000 sheets of paper a year; if digitization reduces that number by even a quarter this year, the amount of resources saved on a global scale is staggering.
"For any company digitization is setting the tone for the future, and the sustainability and savings it drives, forms an important pillar in the larger scheme of things," said Edward Sanju, Regional CEO of virtual contact management firm Sansan.
For another example, he pointed to the business card, that staple of professional encounters around the world. According to Sansan's estimates, he said, one tree can produce an estimated 39,000 business cards. This number appears large until compared with other statistics estimating that over 27 million business cards are printed daily. If just a fraction of those are digitized for use in virtual connections, it would add up to another immense saving of resources worldwide.
Going beyond the resource use represented by office supplies, it's also possible to cut back on more fundamental overheads such as utilities. Remote working has left many workplaces all but empty, and even those essential workplaces that are still operating are typically under-occupied. This presents a simple opportunity to cut back on energy usage during this period. For example, working with facility management to keep lighting and air conditioning turned down in unused parts of the building; enforcing basic energy saving measures that work well with social distancing measures, such as keeping doors closed between air conditioned and non-air conditioned areas.
More and better ESG practices at all levels
These are just a few areas of waste reduction and resource savings that have a clear business case, and there are many others to be found. Small cost savings that add up, over time, to a somewhat larger impact on the bottom line—something that many companies will appreciate during this difficult economic period when cost control is such a priority.
But, as the link between ESG practices and performance shows, the business case is far greater than that. COVID-19 is driving many major institutional investors to focus more closely on sustainable practices than ever. And while measures to make the workplace environmentally friendly are still relatively superficial against the structural changes needed to make an entire business sustainable, they do support and speak to an organizational culture that places importance on environmentally sound and sustainable practices. They help to achieve "buy-in from below" to match the "tone from the top", and start valuable conversations on sustainability at all levels of the business.
As Lexngo MD Carlotta Wong told People Matters, "Addressing the ‘why’ question is always a good idea, helping employees see the big picture and benefits of the sustainability efforts in a long-term mission."
In that respect, COVID-19 presents additional impetus for companies to consider the environmental friendliness of their operations and seek out improvements that will benefit them, the communities they operate in, and, to that small extent, the global community in the long term.