Business sustainability during a pandemic? Yes, and it’s perhaps more important than ever

COVID-19 hit us like a freight train and brought to the forefront the need to be able to adapt on a dime. The pandemic has also reminded us to pay more attention to and care for our businesses, our employees, our communities, and each other. The lessons learned were many.

So, while our world is vastly different today versus where we were a year ago, there is one thing that is the same — we are still very much talking about the need for our businesses to be sustainable. And no, “sustainability” is not the same thing as “being green.”

As a reminder, being “green” focuses mainly on the environment. It includes taking a product or item that we have used, accepting responsibility for this usage, and recycling or repurposing the item after the fact. Sustainability, however, includes protecting the environment and improving the quality of life for people inside and outside of the organization. And while green is important, sustainability is vital.

When the onset of the pandemic hit us a year ago, many businesses turned their attention to doing whatever they could do to stay afloat. Focus turned to simply staying in operation and sustainability was put to the side. While understandable and perhaps arguably necessary in the short term, attention now can — and must — turn back to our business’s longer-term view.

Perhaps more than ever, a business’s sustainability must return to the basics of why it even exists. It stems back to our missions and the foundation of our companies, which should always be on our minds and are a critical component for us to look to as we continue the recovery process.

As an office supply company, when times are “normal” our business centers on solving problems for customers and providing them items so their employees can better conduct their business. We ensure offices have the office supplies, cleaning and break room supplies, janitorial products, and the technology they need, and provide delivery to offices and places of business as a part of the value proposition.

By the end of March 2020, there was a 180-degree shift in our business model. What people needed, and where they needed it, changed literally overnight. For me, my time on the job shifted to tracking down the items that were in high demand but short supply: masks, disposable gloves, sanitizing products, and, as if we could forget, toilet tissue and other paper products.

I was fortunate to have connections who helped me source large quantities of the items that everyone in Dane County (and across the U.S.) was looking for. Once I found these items, my task turned to getting them to Madison, ensuring pricing was as fair as possible, distributing them to customers who needed them, and changing our delivery routes to include residences. This last task was just as important as the others, as anyone who could shift away from a traditional office space and work out of a home office did so.

Moving past the essential actions to sustainable efforts

During the first months of the pandemic, our efforts were genuinely focused on what I described above. We were scrambling for information about the novel coronavirus, figuring out how to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe and healthy, and looking to see what we could do to keep our businesses afloat — at times focusing on redeveloping our business model so it was relevant in our new world.

The amount of time it took to successfully pivot a business varied. Some took weeks, some took months, some even longer (including those still working to reinvent themselves). Some companies, unfortunately, are still struggling, with many not successfully weathering the tumultuous 12 months and counting. But for those who are still here a year later, I would put forth it is time to ensure we pay attention to sustainability efforts. Here are four actions that we as businesses can take:

Take care of your employees

More than ever, businesses appreciate the importance of our employees. They worked hard over the last 12 months, made sacrifices, did whatever was needed to keep businesses moving in the right direction, and at times were the reason companies stayed afloat. For our business, which was deemed essential, our employees continued to come to work and do their best to solve customer problems. I witnessed this right from the start of the pandemic when we operated with limited information on the virus and were not 100% sure how to keep people safe and healthy.

The COVID emergency also proved to be a time to check in on employees and see how they coped with the changing world. For employees who continued to come to work to pack orders, provide deliveries, and handle customer service requests, it was imperative to be transparent about all safety measures in place and go above and beyond the guidelines wherever possible. For employees who had reduced hours, it was an opportunity for us to offer a unique way for an employee to continue earning regular pay: our team could spend their time at a local community nonprofit organization and in return would receive their full pay.

Take care of our planet and our environment

This is an ongoing theme of sustainability: ensuring we take care of the physical world around us. Even before the pandemic, how to best handle waste and improve the process of recycling has been top of mind, but now we see used masks littering the ground and we have mixed new chemical cleaners into the equation. Our water supply is as precious and essential as ever. We must revisit how we can take care of our Earth. As I’ve said before, there is no Planet B.

Source local

During COVID-19, we saw great difficulty sourcing many materials and had some supply chain issues crop up. Luckily, many of those issues have been resolved. Still, the activities over the last 12 months should make us consider and reflect on the importance of buying local whenever we can. If we support the businesses near us that provide needed goods and services, this will strengthen them and we will then have nearby supplies of what we need the next time we have a global emergency.

Support the community

The Greater Madison area is a wealth of not-for-profits that do so much to support everyone lucky enough to be a part of our community. An essential component of sustainability is for businesses and individuals to help the community around us and support these fantastic organizations. From the Foundation for Madison’s Public Schools and the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, to the Goodman Center and One City Schools, and The Beacon to Lussier Community Education Center (and many, MANY other organizations!), it is the responsibility of business owners to support organizations that are meaningful to us in whatever way we can. It truly will make a difference.

As Thomas Milburn, a director with a sustainability consultancy known as Corporate Citizenship, explains, “Businesses with a clear sense of purpose that is attuned to the needs and well-being of society are those that we will place our trust in as employees, customers, and investors in order to rebuild better.”

We are a bit more than a year into the pandemic. As vaccinations continue to roll out, we see a bit more light at the end of the tunnel, but we still have a long way to go. As we continue to work to rebound and rebuild our businesses and our lives, I urge you to think about sustainability.

Rose Molz is president of EZ Office Products.

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