Is it time to redefine how we think about and approach sustainability

By Alan, CEO and founder of adi Group,

discusses what he has seen in recent weeks and argues that the current crisis is an opportunity not to be missed for UK businesses to expand their thinking on sustainability

 The COVID-19 crisis is unlike anything we’ve seen before. Almost biblical in proportion, it has torn across the world and is causing untold damage to human lives and to the global economy. It is terrible and my heart goes out to the millions of people worldwide suffering the consequences of the pandemic.

Like a lot of you, no doubt, while I try to manage the crisis and the needs of our customers, staff and partners as best I can, COVID-19 has also given me pause for thought and to ask myself again a question I’ve been pondering for some time.

Do we need, as a society and an economy, to revisit the way we conceive of ‘sustainability’ to encompass a broader set of ideas than those simply relating to the environment and the climate? And, in short, I believe we do.

Positive signs

In the UK, we’re barely a month into the lockdown but, putting aside for one minute the impact on life and limb, we’ve already seen some remarkable things due simply to the forced change in our behaviour.

The vast majority of us are travelling far, far less, so our CO2 emissions have dropped dramatically. Pollution is down and city skies are clear – in Northern India, they can see the Himalayas from 100km away for the first time in decades.

The amount of waste we generate has reduced and, watching the pennies and unable to visit the shops, some of our more needless consumption habits have been curtailed.

I saw a jellyfish on the news the other day, clearly visible in the once murky waters of Venice’s Grand Canal. It was a beautiful, graceful creature and it showed us how things can change for the better in such a short period, even in the worst of circumstances.

And I look at all this and I see the incredible way people and businesses in the UK engineering sector have pulled together, and, for me, it’s a glimpse of what we might have, if we carry this spirit forward after the coronavirus storm has passed.

I believe now is the perfect opportunity for businesses not only to redouble their environmental efforts but to sharpen their focus on the sustainability of our local communities and skills development.

Coming together

I’m really encouraged by what we’ve seen in terms of crisis mitigation from our suppliers, our customers and our teams. The way people have responded has been fantastic. Everyone is pulling together to overcome problems nobody would have factored in last Christmas or even two months ago.

We will get past the crisis. There will be bumps in the road but we will make it to the other side. The key then will be to harness this newfound spirit for the long-term and use it to help us solve other problems.

Chief among those is, of course, the environment. If we can keep up the momentum, we can galvanise British ingenuity to find new ways of doing things that help minimise, or even reverse, the negative impact of climate change. But our ambitions shouldn’t stop there.

New thinking

There seems to have been a shift in the way people are talking about all manner of things in recent weeks. Despite the horror of it all, it has been amazing to see people getting behind the NHS and businesses shifting production to manufacture vital PPE.

I believe this is all too precious for us to let go and that we should harness our newfound unity to shape a post-COVID world that tackles head on some of the many problems we have, including the environment but going well beyond it.

When adi Group was awarded a Platinum accreditation by EcoVadis earlier in the year, it made me so proud. They’re the world’s leading universal provider of sustainability rankings but their focus extends beyond green issues into 21 different areas that other businesses would do well to consider themselves.

Understanding our roles post-COVID

As an industry and as individual companies, we have to look at our responsibilities in a new way. Sustainability isn’t just about the climate and pollution. It involves us developing a deeper appreciation of the duty we have to our partners and the debt we owe to the communities in which we operate.

This crisis has given us an urgency that we can take forward into the new reality that emerges. We should use it to further address the skills gap, for example, that threatens UK engineering and encourage young people into our industry.

We should also engage with partners in the local community to see how best we can meet their needs and look to open up new employment for people. Plenty of people have really lost out on the jobs front due to the pandemic and the younger generation struggle for the same opportunities mine enjoyed.

It’s circular. If they prosper, so shall we and vice versa. The same logic applies, when you scale things up to the national and global levels, and there is no reason why we can’t do just that. It will take time and a lot of ambition and hard work but there are huge gains to be made and to be shared by us all.

The time is now

We were always going to have to play our own individual roles in building a sustainable future. And the chances are governments will compel us further in that direction after the crisis is dealt with, so we should act now.

Don’t get me wrong. There is so much to do and this piece barely scratches the surface but the benefits we can realise at every level of society and the economy, to my mind at least, mean that broadening out the way we see and treat sustainability as an idea and as our mission is the obvious way to go.

All the evidence I have seen in recent weeks tells me that, when we pull together in pursuit of the common good, we can really make things happen. I believe now is the time that together we sustain our collective efforts in that spirit, so everyone one of us can enjoy a sustainable future.