Prioritizing Purpose in a Pandemic

Even when times are tough, stakeholders expect companies to live up to their stated values, says best-selling author Daniel Goleman.

Daniel Goleman, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and co-developer of the Goleman EI online learning platform, is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, is available now. 

California wildfires. Gulf Coast hurricanes. Record high temperatures in cities and regions across the US. Over the past few weeks, Americans have been living through overlapping disasters. On the one hand, we are managing one of the most severe global health pandemics in history. On the other, thousands of families are being asked to evacuate their homes and take refuge while continuing to practice social distancing.

Then, consider this: 75% of thriving employees say their company has a strong sense of purpose that resonates with their own values, according to a recent survey.

The question is: during this health pandemic, which values are companies prioritizing?

In March, around just as the novel coronavirus was becoming a reality for millions of Americans, I questioned how purpose-driven goals, such as addressing the environmental crisis, would hold up in light of an impending economic crisis. Shortly after, the Wall Street Journal published a piece titled "Sustainability Was Corporate America’s Buzzword. This Crisis Changes That," claiming that "executives have called a timeout” when it comes to social-responsibility programs.

The article looked at companies like General Motors and Starbuck’s which had paused their waste-elimination efforts like car-sharing and reusable mugs. It also featured Lauren Singer, the CEO of Package Free (a Brooklyn-based company promoting the zero-waste lifestyle) whose Instagram post reflected the existential crisis faced by many businesses.

“When the reality of Covid-19 set in,” she posted on Instagram, “I made some choices that went against the way I have lived my life for almost a decade.”

The whole situation looked quite grim. About 2.5 trillion metric tons of carbon dioxide have been released into the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and that in the last five years, the US has spent over $525 billion on climate-related disasters… According to the World Economic Forum’s global survey, “Failure of climate change mitigation and adaption” is the number one risk by impact around the globe and number two by likelihood over the next decade.

Can companies really afford to ignore the problem?

While Covid-19 may have initially forced businesses to rethink how they do sustainability over the past six months plenty of organizations haven’t been able to ignore anything.

In June,  Harvard Law published a paper showing how the “physical risks from climate change will translate into increased socioeconomic risk, presenting policymakers and business leaders with a range of questions that may challenge existing assumptions about supply-chain resilience, risk models, and more.” Financial analysts backed this up, arguing that the economic fallout caused by the virus has opened people’s eyes to the fact that climate change is likely to the cause of the next global financial crisis.

Whether they are motivated by the fear of losing more money or by true care for the planet, organizations have responded. Apple has set goals to have all of its products be carbon-neutral by 2030. Microsoft recently announced that it will require its suppliers to report their emissions in an effort to be carbon negative by 2030. And because the fashion industry was shown to have produced 4% of global carbon emissions in 2018—more than France, Germany and the UK combined—fashion giants including H&M, Nike, and PVH have joined united to create Global Fashion Agenda, a nonprofit promoting sustainable fashion including closed-loop recycling.

These efforts affirm what many climate experts have long said: that to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 and save the planet, the private sector will need to play a pivotal role.

Covid-19 or not, this means that companies can expect they will continue to be held to task around how deeply they value the environment. In the past year, thousands of employees have walked out over climate-related issues to protest employers not addressing climate change.

When considering what values to prioritize during this time, remember this: the environment may be non-negotiable.

Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence Coaching Certification.