How COVID-19 has impacted corporate and city sustainability efforts

January 14, 2022, 12:20 AM UTC

Jane Ewing recalled the odd timing of becoming Walmart’s senior vice president of sustainability in March 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Back then, executives were just beginning to understand the severity of the coronavirus, so most of her retail giant’s priorities were centered on crucial initiatives like protecting customers and employees and getting personal protective equipment to workers, she explained Thursday during a Fortune Brainstorm Tech online event. 

“So those first few weeks are very intense and nobody was talking about sustainability, and I actually just began in this role so it was kind of a strange time,” Ewing recalled. 

Very quickly, “like literally within weeks,” she says, executives “realized that one of the reasons we’re in this situation with COVID is because we’re not taking good enough care of the planet.”

How COVID-19 upended the world’s supply chain underscored the importance of corporate sustainability, she said. And adding proper sustainability will help the company achieve a “surety of supply of our products,” like “fresh food” during times of crisis.  

“I think it fundamentally shifted the perception with many of our leaders realizing that this can’t just be a separate thing that we think about from time to time,” Ewing said.

Clarence Anthony, CEO and executive director of the National League of Cities advocacy group, explained that COVID-19 highlighted the many public health, education, and employments gaps that exist for people of color. On a hopeful note, he said that local government officials plan to use funds from the recently-passed American Rescue Plan to address these issues.

“And so I think that as cities have started to build back, recover, rebound, they’re looking at their role so differently,” he said. “And I’m going to use my words to define that common thread, which is to really address the real issues in cities, towns, and villages in a way that we’ve never had an opportunity to do so because each city in the America rescue plan will get the direct dollars to deal with those challenges.”

Ashley Scott, head of global policy for Lime, said that her scooter and transportation company is working with “cities to get citizens and residents to stop looking at the roadway as the primary mechanism of transportation and really start looking at the bike lane and the sidewalk as a way to get from point to point.”

She said that there’s been reports of the COVID-19 pandemic accelerating the adoption of scooters, bicycles, and related methods of “open-air” transportation.

With more people willing to ride bicycles and scooters on city bike lines and sidewalks, there now exists an “ecosystem that actually works together to move people from cars to more sustainable mode,” Scott said.

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