Tag Archives: sustainability

Sustainability in the Time of Coronavirus?

Since the world went on lockdown to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), satellite images from NASA have captured an unlikely view of planet Earth. Pictures from space showed a dramatic drop in pollution over Wuhan after the central Chinese city implemented coronavirus-related restrictions.

You don’t have to circumnavigate the globe from a spaceship to witness the effects the current pandemic is having on our planet. Urban waterways have cleared up in the absence of human activity. Vapor trails from passenger planes no longer streak the skies above us. Rush hour traffic is nonexistent—it’s like driving to work on a holiday.

The natural world is getting a much-welcomed reprieve from human activity. With national parks closed to tourists, the animals in those parks have begun to move freely about areas that would otherwise be populated by humans taking photographs. At Yosemite National Park in California, rangers have witnessed black bears walking in the middle of the road. And at South Africa’s Kruger National Park, a pride of lions was seen sleeping on a paved roadway that was devoid of motor traffic or any human activity.

Earth is also taking a breather from the constant onslaught of pollutants that humans have been pumping into the atmosphere and dumping on the ground and into the waterways in increasing levels since the industrial revolution.

If there’s a lesson to be learned (and there will be many, when all is said and done), it may be that a deadly and catastrophic pandemic has, in just a few months, noticeably curbed our contribution to climate change.

Let me be clear—a global pandemic is not the path to a sustainable future. But the current crisis has helped shed light on the herculean effort needed to turn the tide if we hope to save our planet for future generations.

Climate change

There are countless ways the current crisis has led to a significant reduction in the emission of greenhouse gasses.

Travel of all kinds has come to a standstill. Very few people are driving to work—or anywhere—right now. Nonessential businesses have closed, and those who can work from home are doing so. Conferences have been canceled. Business trips have been postponed. Vacations have been put on hold. And for the time being, there are no concerts, sporting events, in-person weddings or graduations to attend. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, transportation was responsible for 14% of all global carbon emissions in 2014.

See also: COVID-19: Stark Choices Amid Structural Change  

In addition, power plants and factories in China and around the globe have reduced output. Millions are now wearing face masks in public to avoid contracting or spreading the virus. Ironically, the threat of COVID-19 means they’re also breathing cleaner air when they venture outside.

It’s not just cleaner air; even the water is cleaner in some parts of the world. In Venice, locals say the water in the city’s canals has never been clearer, due to the dramatic drop in tourists.

Future of work

The current pandemic has done nothing less than create a worldwide work-at-home experiment.

Normally, when we talk about the future of work, or work sustainability, we talk about reskilling and preparing today’s workers for tomorrow’s jobs.

But overnight, millions of employees who commuted daily to offices or traveled for sales jobs were forced to stay at home and continue working. For many white-collar employees, their work experience may never again be the same when the health crisis is over.

Companies that provide collaborative technology, like videoconferencing, will benefit from the evolution of work life. Ultimately, that’s good news for the planet and those on the front lines of the climate change battle. Working from home requires less travel, less paper usage and less heating and cooling of office buildings.

For those employees who can best manage their time working in isolation, the hours that used to be spent stuck in traffic can now be applied to personal endeavors, like physical fitness, hobbies or family gatherings. Still, others will struggle with knowing when to shut down their computers and stop working. As such, employers will need to keep their remote workers engaged and ensure they don’t feel isolated or unappreciated.

Many companies, like Zurich, have already introduced flexible work schedules, allowing employees to work out of the office some days or adjust their hours to accommodate their personal lives. These companies are ahead of the curve, and their early action is paying off now.

Digital safety

In today’s digital world, trust depends on cyber security and data stewardship. Many businesses today need to collect customer data to provide goods and services. Protecting that data is important to maintain trust.

Since the spread of COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of coronavirus-themed cyber attacks. According to cyber security firm CYE, cybercriminals have been increasingly exploiting the new situation caused by the global pandemic, citing a fivefold increase in cases.

At Zurich, we promise to never sell our customers’ personal data or share it without being transparent about it, and to keep it safe and secure as we put it to work so we can deliver better services. Other companies have made similar promises, but with so many employees working from home on networks that may not be as secure as those in the office, it is becoming harder to protect data.

Remote work on the scale we’re experiencing now heightens digital perils like never before. For financial, healthcare and other businesses, as well as federal and state agencies that deal with sensitive data, there’s little room for cracks in cyber security systems.

There is an increased likelihood of employees using unsecure networks to retrieve sensitive information when working from home or in remote locations. As quarantines become more prevalent and more people are authorized to work remotely, businesses will need to ensure they’re maintaining proper controls to protect customer data.

See also: 10 Moments of Truth From COVID-19  

ESG investing

Environmental, social and governance (ESG) is at the core of how Zurich interacts with its customers, brokers and communities at large, and is also reflected in our portfolio management. We work with stakeholders to ensure responsible and sustainable business practices and to protect reputations while promoting best practices in managing ESG risks. While global financial markets whiplash from daily record gains and to record losses, ESG investing is playing the long game.

Investing in ESG funds is on the rise, according to Morningstar. The Wall Street Journal reports that the coronavirus outbreak has given rise to a number of factors that are important to ESG investors, including disaster preparedness, continuity planning and the treatment of employees through benefits such as paid sick leave and work flexibility.


For many, “sustainability” is the catch phrase of our time. For Zurich, the time is now to stand behind the promises we’ve made to support a sustainable future for our business, our customers and our communities.

In 2019, Zurich signed up as the first insurer to the Business Ambition for 1.5°C Pledge, which is aimed at limiting average global temperature increases to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by 2030. We’ve also committed to using 100% renewable power in all global operations by the end of 2022.

In addition, we are preparing today’s workers for the challenges of tomorrow, protecting the personal data our customers entrust with us, and investing in businesses that make the world a better place to live.

Why Sustainability Is Becoming Big


In recent years, there has been a global shift toward more environmentally sustainable ways of working. The world’s biggest companies are also increasingly disclosing their greenhouse gas emissions and other energy metrics – and being judged on them by consumers – with 71% of the world’s top 500 companies opting to externally audit their environmental impact numbers.

Although most countries don’t yet require companies to disclose such information, this is likely to change. China has recently issued a draft environmental tax law, and the U.S. has announced plans to cut carbon dioxide emissions;  both are aimed at encouraging businesses to become more green and proving that to the government. The E.U.’s Directive 2014/95/EU entered into force in December 2014, requiring companies with more than 500 employees operating in the E.U. to report on a range of non-financial (including environmental and sustainability) issues by the end of 2016.

While there is some debate on the business benefits of shifting to a more sustainable model, evidence is mounting that companies with lower greenhouse gas emissions perform better on average. So is being environmentally friendly about good PR — or just good business?


Tracking your company’s environmental impact

The challenge in assessing both your businesses’ environmental impact and the potential benefits of becoming more sustainable is in working out the true extent of your operations. While some aspects are relatively easy to identify — amount of recycling, office energy efficiency or the number of flights taken by employees, for example — the connections among our increasingly globalized supply chains and business operations can make monitoring broader ramifications incredibly complex.

Though there are no universal standards for environmental business reporting and impact analysis, there are a number of initiatives under way to encourage more transparency and provide guidance:

• The United Nations Global Compact devotes three of its 10 principles to environmental issues and boasts more than 10,000 corporate signatories. It promotes taking a precautionary approach to environmental challenges, encourages businesses to promote environmental responsibility and is pushing for the development and adoption of environmentally friendly technologies.
• The Global Reporting Initiative has produced guidelines for sustainability reporting that have now been adopted by more than 7,500 companies. With 30 environmental indicators, the focus is around energy, biodiversity and emissions.
• The Carbon Disclosure Project offers guidance on the kinds of data needed to identify ways to reduce negative environment impact, with more than 5,000 corporate signatories by the end of 2014.
• The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program takes a more focused approach, offering guidance and certification for the development and running of more environmentally friendly buildings. Operating in more than 30 countries, and with 20,000 organizations signed up, LEED-certified buildings are not only better for the environment but also more cost-effective because of the reduction in energy use.

The benefits to the bottom line

Analyzing your environmental impact may not yet be universally mandated, but it can be worthwhile. The detailed analysis of the true costs that thorough environmental reporting necessitates can not only help you avoid being accused of a “greenwashing” PR exercise but can also help identify potential savings. The guidelines provided by these organizations can serve as a handy blueprint for identifying more sustainable ways of working.

With energy price volatility “the new normal,” making your operations more energy-efficient and less wasteful can reduce the unpredictable impact of shifts in costs. At the same time, the cost of installing on-site sources of renewable energy is decreasing as technologies improve. Some governments offer subsidies and tax breaks to implement renewable energy, and others (like the U.K.) even pay for renewable energy generated. Even without subsidies, installing renewable energy sources can prove to be a good investment, depending on your location. In the U.S., solar panels may still be expensive to install, but they tend to pay for themselves within 10 to 20 years.

Making your supply chain more sustainable is also a sensible long-term investment, albeit considerably harder to develop. When Puma became the first company to publish the cost of the carbon emitted and water used throughout its supply chain back in 2011, it helped identify ways to reduce water, energy and fuel consumption by 60%, resulting in potential savings of millions of dollars.

You may not need to invest as much as Swedish furniture giant Ikea with its plan to invest €1 billion in projects to encourage sustainability, or Google with its $2 billion investment in solar and wind projects. With the climate challenge too big for any one company (or country) to tackle alone, every little bit helps — and, at a big enough scale, even the smallest changes can make a huge difference.

The starting point of identifying ways to reduce your environmental impact and maximize your efforts’ business benefits is understanding what you’re currently doing through detailed analysis and reporting. Only then can you identify what you can do and what impact this can have on both your business and the planet.

Talking Points

“The fact is… big businesses assess risk and opportunity at a global level, which means that their actions can reverberate across the planet. They develop systems that not only scale up, but require stability and continuity to be good investments.… These days, it is Big Business – not governments or consumers – that is stepping up… because they know their own corporate futures are at stake.” – National Geographic

“Understand that for markets to grow, and for your own future prospects to be successful, it makes sense to integrate, in your strategic thinking and operations, environmental, social and governance issues” – Georg Kell, executive director, UN Global Compact

“Planners, presidents and prime ministers might sign sweeping ‘deals’ but the CEO is where the real power lies, and they will not move a muscle unless change makes sense financially – nor should they.” Robert Clarke, entrepreneur-in-residence, School of Business and Entrepreneurship, Bath Spa University

“The challenge is to distinguish between the (environmental, social and governance) factors that have a material influence on company performance and those that do not. But the data that companies currently report are inadequate to enable investors to make this distinction.” – Laura Tyson, Haas School of Business

Further Reading

Healthcare Reforms Aren’t Sustainable

A recent NPR program celebrated the success of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The benchmark was that many really sick people finally had coverage and that many poor people were now obtaining coverage because of subsidies or because of the expansion of Medicaid. If measured by participation, the healthcare reform under ACA is a success, with more growth anticipated.

Unfortunately, the long-term benchmark must be sustainability and outcomes, not participation. Government programs are often popular in the short term but not sustainable in the long term. The National Flood Insurance Program, Medicare, Medicaid, the VA, etc. will ultimately have to be “adjusted” because 100% of the taxpayers are funding these systems and a very much smaller percentage of us use them.

At some point, the non-users scream “enough already.” “Other people’s money” always runs out, and the $2.6 trillion-plus spent on healthcare is not evenly divided. 47% is spent on the sickest 5% of the population, and just 3% is spent on the healthiest 50% of Americans, according to “Healing a Broken Healthcare System,” from the Louisiana Healthcare Education Coalition. Half of the people are hardly benefiting from the money they contribute under healthcare reform.

Our systems of healthcare and healthcare financing cannot be sustained as they are trending. Yesterday’s system was not sustainable; neither is today’s ACA. The marketplace must innovate. More government and more taxes are not the answer.

Obesity and diabetes are running rampant, and too many folks (especially young people) are living a sedentary lifestyle. This lifestyle adds to the “diseased population” and the future problems and costs.

Personal and family responsibility are a necessity. Nutrition (diet) and activities (exercise) are a start. Addressing the individual in all her elements — mind, body and spirit — is a must. Answers to this crisis are inside of us as individuals and populations — not just at the doctor’s office.

Providers and institutions delivering care must leverage technology for efficiency of operations and efficacy of results. Increased availability and utilization of naturopathic physicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, health coaches, nutritionists, counselors and tele-medicine will ensure increased patient engagement and ultimately satisfaction and enhanced results.

Preventive medicine for all and “bringing” care and prevention to populations who can’t get to the marketplace available to most will improve lives and reduce costs. We need fewer dollars to be spent on prescriptions and invasive surgeries. It’s okay for providers and payers to just say no to demands that are not in the consumer’s best interest — regardless of what the TV commercial suggests.

Genomics, improved diagnostics to ensure earlier interventions, a focus on extending life (versus delaying death), integrated/holistic care, marrying technology and touch and technology, natural medicine and other changes are in the works now.

Other hopes rest in vascular therapy, tailored and embraced wellness plans, systems that can intervene with populations in need during crises and tailored and personalized process management for chronically ill mental health patients. Accountable care, outcome-based payment mechanisms, new models of care and care delivery and consumer engagement (personal avatars facilitating our own motivation allowing us to design our own “road to well”) are solutions now or yet to be introduced in the market of tomorrow. These are our future. Marcus Welby, M.D., is dead, but the healing and caring he delivered can live on.

This article was written in August. Last week, I received proof of the concepts. A friend received his renewal for his ACA policy. Coverage was reduced from a 70/30 co-pay (insurer pays 70%,) to a 60/40 plan, yet his premiums increased 31%. This is just the beginning — it will get worse. When you insure a majority of sick people and you subsidize many of their premiums, you will get participation. When relatively healthy and unsubsidized policyholders receive prohibitive rate increases, they will discontinue coverage, and the insured pool suffers adverse selection. Did I mention that the situation will get worse?