This year will forever be etched in living memory much like the Great Wars. COVID-19 has ravaged nations, destroyed the livelihood of millions of people worldwide, and wreaked havoc on economies. With the pandemic still raging, nearly half the world’s population is under lockdown in a bid to escape the virus’ deadly spikes.
The forced lockdown has brought about an unexpected but positive change. With people confined to their homes, vehicles off the roads, and some manufacturing facilities having temporarily suspended operations, our planet is slowly healing its wounds. Air-pollution levels have plunged to an unprecedented low, with a drastic reduction in gaseous emissions – nitrogen dioxide pollution has decreased by as much as 60% over Northern China, Western Europe, and the US. Release of industrial effluents into water bodies has also reduced, and many habitats have welcomed back migratory birds.
“If we look at just the past few months of lockdown since the factories are not churning out harsh chemicals into our rivers and water bodies, the rivers have revealed their clear waters. The water of Ganga has improved to ‘drinkable’ status. Earlier, it was known to contain large quantities of chemicals and faecal coliform bacteria (up to 3 Lakh per 100 ml). The Yamuna had zero oxygen level (making it technically a dead river). Now it is clean and clear,” exclaims Nihar Sharma, President, Sustainable Tourism Foundation.
Beyond doubt, the pandemic-induced lockdown proves that humans, and humans alone, are responsible for the destruction of biodiversity and ecological balance. This leads us to an important question: Is slowing down economic activity the only way to undo the damage inflicted upon the planet, and prevent it from deteriorating further? Can we hope to strike a sustainable balance between the economy and nature?
Humans are a part of the larger ecosystem, and when the balance tips, we’ll find ourselves at the receiving end of nature’s fury. “We are in the midst of a pandemic that reminds you that we live in a world where everything is connected – from humans to all other living beings, the entire Earth’s biodiversity, and the resources we consume off it. It’s also quite clear that we – as individuals, society, business, or economy – cannot operate in isolation forever,” says Kamal Bali, President & MD, Volvo Group, India.
COVID-19 is highlighting the need for us to reconsider the way we do business. And some organizations are already making sustainable business practice a part of their business strategy, and not only Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).
Sustainable development to reverse climate change
It’s no secret that industrial greenhouse emissions and effluents are the chief cause of global warming and climate change. The pandemic has given a temporary reprieve to these activities, but the effect is certain to wear off as industries resume their activities. As Tony Henshaw, Chief Sustainability Officer, Aditya Birla Group, says, “A sustainable planet means that people can live on it.” According to Henshaw, businesses will have to change, and these changes are the transformation of business models or products and operations and value chain into sustainable models.
Trident Group has already embarked on this road to creating a sustainable business model by transforming its value chain. The company manufactures eco-friendly paper from wheat straw pulp making it the world’s largest manufacturer of wheat straw-based paper. Post ongoing expansions, this capacity will be further upgraded to 200,000 TPA (Tonnes Per Annum). “We have saved 1.5 million trees because of this initiative, “says Richesh Samantaray, Head, ZLD Environment and Sustainability, Trident Group. Though sustainability comes under CSR at Trident, the company has made significant strides and is seeing a tangible business impact. Some of these include reduction of water consumption in manufacturing towels by 20 litres per kilo of towels bringing consumption to 40 litres per kilo of towels, while it was earlier consuming 60 litres of water per kg of towels; carbon emissions have been cut 10% in the past three to four years.
In the case of Volvo, the company has dramatically brought down emissions through alternative fuel technology and efficient design changes. Explains Bali, “Back in 2007, Volvo Group displayed seven trucks with seven different alternate fuels, in a way highlighting to the authorities that it is really not an issue of technology but setting a path forward that everyone can align with.” Recently, Volvo Group displayed platooning trucks operating on the roads of Europe and demonstrated profound savings in fuel and emissions. Moreover, at a construction equipment site – coupled with electric and automated equipment – the company demonstrated that carbon emissions reduced by 98%, while there was a 70% reduction in energy costs and a 40% reduction in operator cost, according to Bali.
Re-engineering business models to build longevity and harmonize with nature
As part of CSR, which the Indian government made mandatory years ago, companies have introduced various sustainable business practices such as wastewater treatment, switching to alternative (renewable), cleaner energy sources for vehicle fuel and electricity, and using organic inputs for manufacturing. But companies that are serious about conserving the environment have re-engineered their business model to make sustainable practices a part of a strategy. For instance, the Aditya Birla Group has chalked out the ABG Sustainable Business Framework that takes the form of a funnel which pivots around three spokes: Ensuring responsible stewardship, engaging in strategic stakeholder engagement, and strategically future-proofing its business strategies and its supply chain.
Trident Group has built its sustainable business practice around the ‘5R’ model: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot. “We follow the 5R concept of sustainability. We have taken several measures to make sustainability a reality across different parts of our business. One such measure we’ve taken is having additional stages of reverse osmosis wherein we are reducing the quantity of wastewater that goes into our evaporators,” explains Samantaray.
But the question worth asking is – are businesses, overall, ready to go the whole hog? “I have been in India for 10 years and I have been campaigning for building sustainable business models. The problem I have is that the word ‘Sustainability’ has such traction and is so well sponsored that most people don’t really want to listen to anything about building sustainable businesses. But I believe coming out of COVID, they will,” remarks Henshaw.
Himanshu Tilwankar, Corporate Head Environment, RSPL Group, concurs, “It is an alert to mankind for rethinking lifestyle and development strategies. It has generated a lot of awareness about the importance of factoring in sustainability while making any major decisions among policymakers.”
In the conflict between humans and nature, the ecosystem only breaks and loses, laments Sakshi Jindal, Head of Sustainability, India, HKS Inc. This is when leadership matters most when leaders must articulate their vision for a country and a globe which is resilient, and where human aspirations are balanced with the needs of the environment. “We cannot just stop at bringing the economy back on track. We need to get our earth back,” says Bali, aptly summing up what is at stake here.