Sustainability - the other two pillars

26th of April 2021
Sustainability - the other two pillars
Sustainability - the other two pillars

Arguments around sustainability have been heavily focused on saving the planet over the past few years. But have those other two pillars of sustainability –people and profit – gained new prominence in the light of the global pandemic, asks Ann Laffeaty?

Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion have recently brought the topic of sustainability firmly into focus. The need to save the planet by reversing climate change and reducing our use of natural resources has shaped many a sustainability policy. And at the same time we have become increasingly keen to reduce our use of throwaway items and plastic products.

But over the past 12 months, the emergence of COVID-19 has shifted our priorities and forced us to dwell instead on factors such as cleaning, hygiene, safety and the growing economic crisis. It seems inappropriate to complain about the use of disposable masks and plastic PPE when people’s lives are at stake.

But sustainability is not just about the environment. It is usually considered to comprise the three “pillars” of people, planet and profit. So in the light of the current crisis, is it time to focus on
“people” and “profit” rather than putting the planet at the centre of every sustainability argument?

Tackling COVID-19 and safeguarding public health have become everyone’s primary concerns during the pandemic, according to Facilicom managing director Jan-Hein Hemke, “Climate action has fallen further down the list of priorities for some,” he admits. ”However as the world went into lockdown and our everyday activities decreased, pollution levels declined and the environment has gained some breathing space as a result.”

He says COVID-19 has sparked a sense of community and placed greater emphasis on the “people” element of sustainability. “People are our prime asset at Facilicom and we couldn’t operate without them,” said Hemke. “When employees are happier and healthier they work smarter, achieve better results and create a more pleasant working atmosphere – and this translates into happier clients and a better service.”

Facilicom has provided additional support to staff during the pandemic to protect their mental health and help them stay positive. “We have had to rethink our well-being strategies and consider how we can best support our colleagues through these changes,” said Hemke.
The company has also donated Return to Work care packs to community volunteers who help primary school children with their reading.

The global pandemic should not result in the environment taking a back seat, says Hemke. ”The three dimensions of people, planet and profit should be intrinsically linked in any successful sustainability policy and no element should be downplayed,” he said.

New pressures

The pandemic has placed new pressures on Greenspeed’s staff according to marketing manager Floor Loos. “People and profit have always been important elements of sustainability, but companies have had to think in a different way due to the crisis,” she said. “The trend for working from home is new to many people and is not easy for everyone - and it requires adaptability from both companies and staff.”

Greenspeed has organised “resilience workshops” for its staff and is also offering tips and tricks on strategies for working from home. And the company is investing more heavily in partnerships and supporting charities. “It is now more important than ever that companies and organisations help one another,” said Loos. “We believe the ‘people’ element of sustainability will gain a higher priority as a result of the pandemic.”

However in her view, all three pillars are equally important. “At Greenspeed we strive to develop products that have a positive impact on both humans and the environment,” she said.

People important

In the early stages of the pandemic it became more important to keep people safe than to protect the environment, according to Essity’s communications director Renée Remijnse. “However, we are seeing an increased focus on sustainability in general as part of the ‘new normal’,” she said.  “The fact that well-being is a part of sustainability means people will continue to remain just as important as the planet in future.”

In July 2020, Essity carried out research into sustainability attitudes post-COVID in which 10,000 people were questioned. “A total of 54 per cent of respondents said they would expect more from businesses in terms of sustainability going forward,” said Remijnse.  “And 56 per cent claimed that sustainability in general had become more important to them personally.”

She believes the “people” aspect of sustainability will increase in importance in future. “People have faced major fears and anxieties during the pandemic and these will stay with them for some time,” she said. “Hygiene, health and well-being are all closely connected and by investing in hygiene, a company demonstrates that it cares about its people.”

Essity donated 51,600 items of PPE to hospitals in Italy during the first wave of COVID-19 in spring. The company also sent Tork toilet tissue to the American Red Cross and donated baby nappies and feminine protection to communities in Greece.

Remijnse believes that the ‘profit’ pillar will also gain a greater focus in future. “COVID has put pressure on many businesses so there is bound to be a renewed cost focus,” she said. “Cost has always been a driving factor for companies – but environmental sustainability will be pivotal in gaining new contracts going forward.”

It is important to strike a balance between planet, people and profit according to Jangro’s ceo Joanne Gilliard. “Consumers will always want to support a brand that is ethical, looks after its people and cares for the environment,” she said. “And profit will remain a key driver since this enables a company to invest in its team and in sustainable products and processes.”

However, she believes the “people” pillar has gained a greater prominence during the pandemic. “Cleaning staff were previously held in low regard by some, but they are now receiving increased recognition for the role they play in society,” she said. “Supporting these operatives who risk their health to keep public areas safe is the least we can do - whether it is by providing them with training or pastoral care.”

Jangro has donated cleaning trolleys, mops and other equipment to the Yorkshire and Humber NHS Nightingale hospital in the UK during the pandemic and has sent masks, aprons, coveralls and skincare products to Macclesfield District General Hospital. The company has also kitted out its drivers with PPE and reduced its operating hours to provide respite for staff during difficult times.

Higher profile

According to Gilliard, the profile of sustainability has been raised in general during the pandemic –and has even become a talking point. “With more people working from home and fewer vehicles on the road, air pollution and emissions began to drop and there were even wild animals roaming the empty streets in the early days,” she said.

But in general, she believes the focus has shifted away from sustainability and towards performance. “Put simply it doesn’t matter how environmentally-friendly a product happens to be if it is not effective against germs and viruses,” she said. “The best products are those that combine sustainability with efficacy.”

Kärcher has been working hard to protect its own people by limiting office capacity since the start of the pandemic, says systems and sustainability manager Marie Kristin Schmidt. “We have also introduced compulsory masks throughout the factory and switched to virtual meetings,” she said. “And we’ve set up a crisis management team to assess the situation regarding infection figures on a daily basis and to take appropriate measures.”

Supporting communities

The company has been supporting local communities as well. “We switched one of our production lines over to hand sanitiser and have been distributing this along with masks, overshoes, head covers and disposable gloves to rescue services, care homes and food banks,” she said.

Schmidt agrees with other commentators that the three sustainability pillars are all intertwined. “Sustainability is everyone’s responsibility and the fact people have been working from home has had positive results in terms of CO2 emissions,” she said. “Flexible working will only enhance these positive effects on sustainability in the future.”

The “people” pillar of sustainability has always been a high priority for Nilfisk, according to head of corporate communications Steffen Støvelbæk. “The topics of health and safety have never been more important than during the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “We have therefore established a global crisis management team so that local representatives in each country can take action and communicate new guidelines to employees.”

Nilfisk has donated floorcare machines to the COVID-19 units of hospitals in Mexico and Denmark and has sent masks to frontline responders in the US. “We also donated cleaning machines to the Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan which was built early on in the pandemic to treat COVID-19 patients,” he said.

Positive impacts

Cromwell Polythene’s first priority over the past 12 months has been for the safety of its staff, says managing director James Lee. “However, honest and ethical dealings with employees, customers and suppliers should remain central to all business operations,” he adds.

Most of the company’s office-based staff have been working from home during the pandemic, says Lee, and Cromwell Polythene has taken various steps to aid communities. “For example in the early stages of the crisis we donated polythene film to volunteers making personal protective equipment for the NHS,” he said. “We also participated in a litter-pick for Keep Britain Tidy’s Great British September Clean.”

He believes that the general use of more PPE, sanitiser and cleaning products is not helpful to the environment.  “But on the other hand, our changed behaviour during lockdowns in terms of working from home and reducing our travel has led to positive impacts which have made many of us re-think what is possible in terms of sustainability,” he said.

He adds that the importance of the “people” and “profit” pillars cannot be overplayed. “One thing is for sure: there has never been a greater need in peacetime for businesses to generate profit, employ people and pay taxes,” he said.

Today’s sustainability priorities have definitely shifted towards the “people” pillar, says service provider Incentive QAS managing director Jamie Wright. “Sustainable products are our default solutions - but sanitising wipes have been flying off our suppliers’ shelves in recent months,” he said. “This is concerning because those products will not break down when disposed of and will therefore end up in the general waste stream.

“Our clients have good reason to bolster their hygiene efforts at this time – but sustainability shouldn’t be compromised for a prolonged period.”

He says the “people” aspect of sustainability has definitely come to the fore during the pandemic. “Flexibility and understanding have never been as important for staff and clients as they are right now,” said Wright. “Everyone has had to rethink their strategy from a well-being and mental health perspective as well as from an operations viewpoint.”

Agile, responsive

And he believes that the “profit” sustainability pillar will continue to remain important throughout. “The business environment has become more challenging than ever - but if your sustainable business model delivers good results and can operate in an agile and responsive manner, you will always be competitive,” he said.


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