“Is it sustainable?” COVID-19 points to the value of asking big questions to inform planning resilience and social justice

COVID-19 underscores firms’ need for planning resilience, disproportionate impacts on poorer populations, and our interconnectedness.

By: Janice Endresen
person standing in the woods looking up

In an April 10 webinar, COVID-19 and Sustainability Trends, Glen Dowell, professor of management and organizations at Johnson, shared his perspective on COVID-19 and how it relates to sustainability, including why businesses fail to anticipate and adequately prepare for disruptive events like pandemics; what parallels can be drawn to issues like climate change; and how social justice impacts of the pandemic mirror research findings about pollution and climate change.

COVID-19 points to a failure of imagination in planning for crises and responding to radical change.

“What we’ve seen from the pandemic is how fragile the idea of planning is,” said Dowell. “In the healthcare world, we’ve seen increasing attention to efficiency and planning and trying to make organizations act in a more corporate way, which works really well when the world stays within a certain bandwidth. But once the world shifts radically — it’s really difficult. Your assumptions about how the world works get thrown out the window.

“It’s very hard for organizations to plan for that,” Dowell said. “You have to step back and say: ‘What happens if these assumptions don’t hold?’ We don’t value doing that; we value really strict numerical analysis and small tweaks [such as] ‘What if the price changes by this much?’”

Ensuring sustainability in today’s world means leaders have to ask broader questions. “What if climate change shifts ecosystems so key agricultural products aren’t available, for example?” Dowell asked. “Firms really have to stop and think about those kinds of eventualities and what it means for their business.”

That human ability to think very differently about the world than what people are used to is what we’re seeing play out now, in responses to COVID-19, Dowell said.

Glen Dowell, professor of management and organizations

COVID-19, like pollution, disproportionately impacts poorer populations—unethical and unsustainable effects society must address.

“We know from decades of research that the poor bear the brunt of sustainability challenges,” Dowell said. “Poor countries are already bearing the brunt of climate change and they have far less room for error: As crop failures hit, they don’t have stockpiles. They don’t have money to pay a higher price. Coastal communities are already imperiled in poor countries. Solutions available to richer parts of the world are not available to them.

“We see this even within developed countries. My research a few years ago found that although we’ve done a lot of environmental improvements and cleanup, in the U.S. those efforts are mostly in richer communities.

“That pattern is already being seen for COVID-19,” Dowell said. “For the rich, the pandemic is an inconvenience and a worry, depending on people’s underlying health issues or other problems — but it’s much, much less of a concern than it is for the poor, who are already living, at best, paycheck to paycheck. The kind of disruption this is causing is catastrophic for a lot of people in this country.”

Even the health impacts of COVID-19 have a disproportionate impact.

“It’s already evident that communities with lower socioeconomic economic status are facing more devastating circumstances,” said Dowell, citing new a new paper by public health researchers at Harvard that found that communities with higher particulate matter in the air have a significantly higher rate of death from COVID-19 than those with cleaner air. “Where do we have cleaner air? Where we have richer people,” said Dowell. “Generally we can put greater pressure on polluters to clean up when we have wealth and resources, and when property values are really high, it’s harder to locate dirty industries there.”

“Sustainability can’t just be for rich countries and rich communities,” Dowell said. “We have to have the empathy and connectedness to understand that any action we take—whether it’s mitigation or adaptation for climate change or paying attention to resource depletion—can’t be just so the rich can continue the party. Not only is that clearly morally and ethically incorrect; it also leads to massive concerns about instability. We are already facing a lot of climate refugees, and that problem is going to just get worse and worse.”

COVID-19 helps us understand how our actions affect others and our connectedness within and across our societies.

To illustrate, Dowell refers to his own experience as an example: “As a reasonably healthy middle-aged man, maybe I’m not vulnerable to COVID-19; I’m probably not likely to get very sick from it. But I’m connected to people who are really, really vulnerable, and I have to think about how my actions affect them.”

Similarly, sustainability makes us think about the implications of our actions both as corporations and as individuals, said Dowell. This new awareness of inter-connectedness also informs how current actions and decisions will affect people years from now. That awareness could leverage greater thinking about sustainability and drive new initiatives both within businesses and individually. 

Good news: many corporations are moving quickly to try to solve the problem of COVID-19.

“Even as we’re seeing a lot deserved criticism for some corporate actions, the very best of what we’re seeing are corporations that realize they can use their resources and what they do really well to try to solve problems,” said Dowell. For example, dozens of firms are moving quickly to gather the resources to fix the lack of availability and slow turnaround time for testing.

One is a company based in Ithaca: Rheonix, started by Greg Galvin, MS ’82, PhD ’84, MBA ’93.  “Rheonix wasn’t in the flu-testing business, but they knew a lot about testing and they had the capabilities to move toward it,” Dowell said. Rheonix rushed development of a same-day testing turnaround method for COVID-19 results and received FDA approval on April 29. Now, up to 200 same-day tests are available in Tompkins County via a partnership with Cayuga Health.

“We’re seeing other examples of that, some of them minor and temporary like the hockey equipment manufacturer Bauer that switched its manufacturing from creating face shields for hockey players to modifying those shields for use by frontline workers,” Dowell said.

“Sustainability is not about depriving people of choice or doing a little less badly; it’s about trying to solve problems,” Dowell said. “In terms of legitimacy, license to operate, and loyalty, we could see rewards accrue to companies like these, who are trying to use what they do well to solve big problems. And the ones that have leapt in to try to solve this problem are going to be at the forefront.”

The pandemic has taught companies about the fragility of supply chains and the need for resilience.

“Some companies have already started to think about resilience issues and pivoting a little bit away from the language of efficiency that has dominated for many years now as they built their supply chains,” Dowell said. “Any efficiency lost may be compensated for by an ability to be more agile and resilient when massive changes happen. Companies will start paying attention to this in a much greater way than they have in the past,” he predicts.

Related links:

The Clean Get Cleaner

Getting To Green

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