Corporate Sustainability and COVID-19: Trying to Stay On Track

NAEM Staff
September 10, 2020
Pragmatic Strategies for Meeting Your Zero-Waste Goals
One might expect that the 2020 pandemic and economic slowdown translated to corporate sustainability agenda slowdown. The short answer: Yes. The longer answer: Certain sustainability initiatives have no longer been prioritized compared to others.

What has jettisoned to the front of sustainability is the focus on employee health and wellness. Additionally, according to NAEM research conducted at the 3-month mark from the onset of COVID-19 shutdowns, 77% of companies are on still track or ahead of schedule with their greenhouse gas reduction goals. ESG reporting and transparency also remains a priority.

On the flip side, this drops to 64% for zero-waste goals and 62% for sustainable sourcing:

NAEM Research - Sustainability Initiatives On Track of Ahead of Schedule

With as many as 38% of companies falling behind on any given sustainability initiative, let’s outline why that’s happening:
  1. COVID-19 response: First and foremost, environmental and sustainability staff are being drawn into health & safety efforts to manage their company’s COVID-19 response. “We've seen ourselves kind of get pulled into the health & safety side of compliance,” shares one sustainability leader.
  2. ESG initiatives: Many sustainability functions are taking on added responsibilities as their companies deepen commitments to racial equity, diversity and inclusion. While community and consumer engagement is not a new activity, many companies have increased their focus on this, and so have turned to their sustainability staff to manage these efforts.
  3. Limited resources: Additional workload and reduced workforce account for the need to prioritize sustainability initiatives.

Zeroing in on Zero Waste

NAEM’s research shows a variety of reasons why sustainability progress in 2020 is mixed. Zero-waste initiatives provide a good example of the drivers that are coming together. Sustainability leaders report the following when it comes to resources for their zero-waste programs in 2020:
  • 63% report reduced manpower
  • 54% report reduced focus
  • 31% report reduced funding
  • 23% report that zero waste is not currently considered business-critical
In sum: Fewer resources. Additional workload. How can companies possibly keep their zero-waste programs on track, let alone pull ahead? Ultimately, the best resource may be to collaborate with sustainability leaders at other companies. (And it’s worth noting: Amidst these challenges, 13% of companies have actually managed to get ahead of schedule on zero-waste goals.)

NAEM’s Zero-Waste peer workgroup, for example, will share and discuss the following this month:
  • Effective strategies for tracking and reducing solid and liquid waste
  • How to get buy-in from internal and external stakeholders for zero-waste initiatives
  • Strategies to take zero-waste programs from vision to actionable results
In addition, NAEM’s 2020 EHS & Sustainability Management Forum features a dedicated sustainability track, including a session on Addressing the New Challenges of Meeting Zero-Waste Goals. The 2020 Forum, Oct. 20-22, is expected to draw 700+ EHS & Sustainability leaders from 300+ companies across industries.

Teamwork within companies is essential, as is benchmarking outside of your company with fellow EHS & Sustainability leaders. We hope you take advantage of NAEM resources and others to get you to the next level.

Join us for a free webinar with corporate sustainability leaders on Thursday, Sept. 24. Register today:

About the Author

NAEM Staff
The National Association for Environmental, Health and Safety, and Sustainability (EHS&S) Management (NAEM) empowers corporate leaders to advance environmental stewardship, create safe and healthy workplaces and promote global sustainability. As the leading business community for EHS&S decision-makers, we provide engaging forums, a curated network, peer benchmarking, research insights and tools for solving today’s corporate EHS&S management challenges. Visit us online at

Email Sign Up