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How COVID-19 Has Revealed Unsustainable Business Practices

In this blog post, we discuss how COVID-19 has shed light on wasteful business practices, and how companies can use this time to reveal opportunities.

Shelby Bell | June 9, 2020


As the world starts to reopen, many companies have been reflecting on the past few months and preparing their plan for what business will look like on the other side of COVID-19. No company could have predicted the challenges presented by the virus, but one silver lining to come from this crisis is the ability for organizations to slow down and recognize opportunities to evolve traditional business activities and drive lasting change. For many businesses, the pandemic has brought along its own unforeseen challenges, but has also highlighted areas for adaptation and growth—especially in areas that impact sustainability. In this blog post, we discuss how COVID-19 has shed light on wasteful business practices, and how companies can use this time to reveal opportunities for adjustment and innovation to create a better, new normal as they return to business! Continue reading to learn more.

Sustainability Lessons from COVID-19

Make Building Energy Reduction a Priority

In response to COVID-19, many businesses have implemented work from home orders and social-distancing measures to slow the spread of the virus. Consequently, commercial buildings have been vacant over the past couple of months, yet still using large amounts of resources. Architect Magazine suggests buildings we no longer inhabit as a result of COVID-19 still utilize 80 percent of their typical resources because of emergency lighting and elevators, heating, ventilation, air conditioning systems, and so on.

Additionally, the novel coronavirus has shed light on the importance of optimizing building operations, improving efficiencies, and reevaluating unnecessary energy spend to reduce consumption and cut costs once business as usual resumes. Unfortunately, energy usage cannot be completely reduced in buildings despite their vacancy. Shutting down critical building systems like heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) can lead to unhealthy air or corrosion in boilers and chillers, explains Greentech Media. However, businesses still have a multitude of options when it comes to strategies that can significantly reduce energy.

For example, one big way to save energy and cut costs is by maintaining HVAC systems and implementing demand-controlled ventilation. This method works by adjusting outside ventilation air, based on the number of occupants in the building and the ventilation demands that they create. When buildings are vacant, or at lower occupancy, ventilation can be automatically reduced because it is not necessary to heat or cool as much air. Another cost-effective and energy-saving way to upgrade your energy system is by using smart power strips. These innovative strips detect the presence of office workers and turn the attached equipment on or off accordingly.

Another simple change companies can make to reduce energy waste is, installing more efficient lighting. For example, ENERGY STAR qualified bulbs use about 75 percent less energy than traditional models, are higher performing, and help cut costs through lower utility bills. According to ENERGY STAR, environmentally responsible businesses have more positive responses from consumers and employees than those that aren’t as environmentally conscious. Learning how to reduce energy throughout your building can not only drive consumer and employee appreciation, but can also help reduce costs, long-term, as your business gets back up and running!

Travel less and reduce greenhouse gas emissions

In the United States, transportation is the largest contributor of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, in 2017 the category accounted for 29 percent of total greenhouse gases emitted into the environment. Emissions from commercial flights, for example, were rising up to 70 percent faster than predicted. And, from 2013 to 2018, the carbon dioxide emitted by airlines increased by 32 percent. 

However, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, this landscape has shifted tremendously and transportation emissions, of all types, have shown a decrease. In March 2020, businesses spent 46 percent less on travel and lodging, whereas work-related transportation decreased by 58 percent compared to last year. Moreover, according to data collected by Airline Data Inc., many airlines are flying with planes that are only 30 to 50 percent full, whereas this time last year flights were at about 80 percent capacity. That said, it is still challenging to fully measure the impact less travel has had on the environment without more data, but the increase in remote work and decrease in business travel has undoubtedly reduced traffic and pollution by a significant rate.

Realizing the environmental benefits of less travel, and understanding that operations can resume while working remotely has influenced many business executives to reconsider their business travel and commuting policies for the long term. If there’s one thing this pandemic experience has taught many leaders, it’s that video conferencing can effectively connect employees with their colleagues and customers–reducing travel-related costs and minimizing a business’s impact on the environment. 

Not surprisingly, many businesses are catching on to this trend: Global Workplace Analytics predicts that 25-30 percent of the U.S. workforce will be working from home multiple days a week by the end of 2021. That’s not to say that businesses will cut out travel entirely, especially if it’s necessary, but there will likely be many executives re-evaluating the need for business travel and in-person meetings post pandemic. A few ways that smarter traveling may take a foothold is through companies implementing longer term work-from-home policies, choosing direct flights instead of those with layovers, and recommending travel by train—a form of transportation that releases 7x fewer emissions than traveling by plane.

Overcoming the food waste problem

The EPA estimates that the United States wastes approximately 133 billion pounds (31 percent) of the overall food supply every year. Given that figure, it is no surprise that food waste was a concern at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and became an even larger issue after a few months. Food Forward explains, “The worsening issue of food waste due to the pandemic has illuminated the flaws present in our food supply chains.” With bulk buyers unable to purchase the food, farmers are being forced to waste millions of pounds of fresh goods. The New York Times explains, “The closing of restaurants, hotels and schools has left some farmers with no buyers for more than half their crops. And even as retailers see spikes in food sales to Americans who are now eating nearly every meal at home, the increases are not enough to absorb all of the perishable food that was planted weeks ago and intended for schools and businesses.” For this reason, Dana Gunders from ReFED is worried that more food waste will be produced in 2020 than in previous years.

The food waste challenges presented by the coronavirus have caught the attention of many different subject matter experts who are problem-solving to develop more efficient food solutions and strategies that will impact whole industries, now and in the future. Given a centralized lack of leadership on this specific problem, many food businesses are working with one another to establish better protocols and guidelines to uphold once the virus is contained. But until then, most businesses have had to take matters into their own hands. Here are some examples of companies adjusting to combat food waste during COVID-19:

1. Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) has created a spreadsheet designed to help farmers redirect their food supply away from their usual customers—schools, cafeterias, and restaurants—and into the hands of other consumers

2. Move for Hunger has helped food banks across the U.S. by providing the trucks needed to deliver supplies to their warehouses and distribution centers

3. California Pizza Kitchen is preparing specialty meal kits with recipe cards for at-home use, including fruit, vegetables, and meat items to customers in need

At RoadRunner, we help businesses turn their food waste into resources by implementing composting  and food recovery programs. Composting turns organics into valuable resources and helps reduce methane and greenhouse emissions, adds nutrients back to the soil, and decreases waste sent to landfill. Learn about RoadRunner’s composting services here.

Create more flexible supply chain models

When China closed its doors in the early months of 2020, industry supply chains dramatically slowed or stopped entirely throughout the world. Even six months later, disruptions to supply chains are still occurring. A survey conducted by the Institute For Supply Chain Management found that nearly 75 percent of companies reported supply chain disruptions in one form or the other due to coronavirus-related transportation restrictions. In addition to transportation restrictions and limited trade, part of the problem also comes from a spike in consumer demand for specific products—think hand sanitizer and toilet paper—and a loss of demand for other products. Although this shift in demand has been difficult for many industries, the novel coronavirus revealed an important issue: Many existing supply chains are not flexible enough to deal with unpredictable challenges.

As businesses throughout the world are forced to deal with the challenges presented by COVID-19, experts suggest using this time to focus on making their supply chains more resilient. According to Bain & Company, “Investments in supply chain resilience can deliver a 15-25 percent improvement in plant output and a 20-30 percentrise in customer satisfaction.” Both the planning and recovery post-pandemic will take time. Still, Bain suggests investing in network agility, digital collaboration, network visibility, rapid generation of insights, and team empowerment to help make supply chains more resilient, flexible, and prepared for the next obstacle that companies face.

Stop thinking linearly, start acting circularly

Before the pandemic, some industries were aware of and pushing for a transition from the traditional linear economy to a circular economy as a way to reduce waste and benefit the environment as a whole. The linear economy, built on a ‘take, make, and waste’ model, enables companies to produce and sell more inexpensive products on a continuous basis—A practice, which at its very root is unsustainable. Today, only 8.6 percent of extracted resources are reused or recycled, and we extract at a faster rate than the world can regenerate. If humans do not make a change, we will eventually run out of these resources. That’s a lot of missed opportunity to use nonrenewable resources more responsibly. However, as the environment starts to heal, production pauses, and transportation slows down, industries are starting to reevaluate the circulatory economy, both out of necessity and integrity. The circular economy focuses on building a renewable economic structure and “designing out” waste and pollution as part of that structure—keeping both products and materials in use longer and contributing to the regeneration of natural systems.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation explains, “As the pandemic forces us to adapt our daily lives in ways we would not have imagined, it is also challenging us to rethink the systems that underpin the economy.” As businesses begin to reformat their business models, now is a better time than ever to start thinking in a circular way. One great example of this model, on a smaller and local scale, is the Pittsburgh-based 412 Food Rescue organization, which recovers and redistributes healthy food from supermarkets and large food distributors. At a time when millions of Americans are food insecure, 412 Food Rescue’s closed-loop business model works to divert perfectly good food from landfills, while feeding those in need: Addressing two issues (hunger and sustainability) of utmost importance. Similarly to this business’ model, when applied across a variety of industries, the circular economy can give way to stronger and more sustainable communities by minimizing dependency on natural resources, prolonging and extending the life of raw materials, and reducing waste.

Looking Ahead

The COVID-19 pandemic has unquestionably presented many challenges in its wake, but it has also shed light on wasteful business activities that have motivated many executives to evaluate their practices and adjust their plan to create a better future. As the country starts to open its doors, now is the time to start planning how your business will resume its operations. Which processes will your business focus on addressing first? How will you prioritize evolving current activities for lasting change? Perhaps you’ve learned your company can significantly reduce air travel, or maybe your main focus will include creating a more flexible supply chain—No matter what you choose, there are plenty of opportunities to make a change for the better in response to lessons learned from COVID-19. In the comments section below, let us know what your main focuses are, and how you plan to get back to business stronger than ever. Follow us on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn to stay in tune with our latest sustainability news and company updates. Thanks for reading!



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