Is today’s reality spurring an unstoppable shift towards sustainability?

FNZ Group's head of sustainability Vian Sharif analyses the recent shift to online as a result of government lockdowns

FNZ Group’s head of sustainability Vian Sharif looks at how the recent shift to online as a result of government lockdowns will shape our future connections

Perhaps it’s the same for you – each day in our new reality seems to bring something that was previously unimaginable. On one hand, these phenomena can be strikingly profound – for example, the exposure of the deep vulnerability of our global systems, the burden borne by those who are most at risk, or the gratitude I feel for the doctors and nurses protecting us. On the other, they are transformations in aspects of life which once seemed impossible – for example the observation that for many of us, the necessity of organising our day to day lives – alongside our fundamental need for connection – is driving us more online than perhaps we have ever been.

Whilst the outcome of many of today’s events remain unknown, we can say with some confidence that the implications of this global reset on shaping the responsible business practises of the future – learnings, threats and opportunities – will no doubt be a part of the discussion for business tomorrow. Covid-19 is relevant to the sustainability and purpose agenda both because of the implications for how business will be held to account, both by institutional and retail investors. But it is also relevant because these events are likely to shape how businesses adapt to a new world – which, we know from a number of facts, will include an acceleration in the move online, supported by future-facing technology to navigate that move.

Take the intriguing success of the Houseparty app owned by Fortnite developer Epic Games, a video chat app that aims to simulate the party experience. As reported by the Financial Times, it has become an overnight sensation, racking up 2 million downloads over the last two weeks. Zoom has become the world’s second most downloaded mobile app behind only TikTok, according to app-analytics firm Sensor Tower. And the proliferation of the online workout is exemplified by Body Coach star Joe Wicks’ transformation from cash-strapped personal trainer to a £14m internet sensation, as reported by The Daily Mail.

Turning to financial services, in China and Italy alone, four weeks after the coronavirus began to spread, the estimated level of customers’ digital engagement with consumer banks was up 10-20%, according to McKinsey. McKinsey points out that if customers have a positive experience online, it could shift behaviour for the longer term.

But how else might a technologically enabled shift support a reset to a more sustainable future? Advances in technology have supported the move to a new breed of AI-based sustainability data-gathering, which aims to offer replicable, quantitative evaluations of companies and governments’ activities based on a breadth of dataset that was previously not possible. Whilst this comes with a warning – the caveat is that this constitutes version 1.0 in a long evolution and consolidation of this technology – its application and democratisation is likely to lead to a new level of transparency around how companies and governments are delivering on their commitments. Their activities and commitments from a sustainability perspective will be revealed to end investors through this shift, and through initiatives like the Tortoise Responsible 100 Index, which examines, ranks and reveals how much each of the FTSE 100’s companies are doing to ensure a safe, fair and sustainable world.

Generation, in their report, ‘The Future of ESG data’ notes that this “next wave” of digital-driven ESG data is likely to prove more forward-looking and relevant for investors as it focuses on new tools like satellite imagery and blockchain-verified tracking, for example – as well as having the ability to scan a broader range of publicly available data than ever before.

In terms of application, it should also be more easily available to the public. So, soon, it will be retail investors to whom this information will be revealed – in response to increasing demand. For example, the Make My Money Matter campaign calls on consumers to understand where their long-term savings are invested, and on the finance industry to meet this demand by using investments to end extreme poverty, tackle inequality and defeat climate change and at a moment when these issues are brought into stark focus.

Now perhaps more than ever, we are at the place where the unimaginable meets the possible; but in responding to this moment, the implications of this global reset will be a part of how we as a society can now be enabled to shape our personal and collective futures.

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Natalie Kenway

Natalie is global head of ESG insight for ESG Clarity and has been an investment journalist for 16 years. She won Editor of the Year at the Aviva Investors Sustainability Media Awards 2021, and was Winner...