Lately, a lot of people have asked me when I think the economy will restart. It’s a simple question, without a simple answer.
I do wish I had one.
I want to see people healthy and going back to work, students in schools, and companies flourishing. Every one of us has a stake in restoring our lives and livelihoods from the pandemic. But that doesn’t mean any of us can say when that will happen.
What I am certain about is that a lasting economic recovery will require two things. First, COVID-19 has made sustainability more important than ever. I think it should be more than a part of the plan—it must be how we recover. Second, we may all have to contribute to a sustainable recovery to ensure it will be lasting and deep.
This is to say that there is no “back to normal.” As business leaders, I think we need to create a new normal.
The New Sustainability Umbrella is Larger—and More Effective
Before most people in the U.S. sheltered-in-place because of the virus, we had already reached a climate crisis that was forcing us all to question our purpose and how we do business. The past decade was the hottest on record, and with it came extreme weather events that changed the sheer cost of business as usual.
I’m concerned about a natural disaster striking at this moment, when necessary social distancing measures would hinder rescue efforts, endanger lives, and significantly add to the cost of damages.
Going back to the way things were before is a non-starter.
The global pandemic is making business leaders think about sustainability in new ways. Before it, sustainability—used as a catch-all word for environmental and social issues—was something that could influence a business strategy and policy, or not. It depended on the values of the stakeholders.
Now, many of us understand that “sustainability” is a stabilization mechanism across business, environment, and the public—and this broad-reaching stability is fundamental for long-term business resilience. People, businesses, and the natural environment are interdependent. I believe we should invest in their health equally so that we as a society are able to bounce back from and adapt to adversity.
This is mission critical in a world where crises such as the pandemic and climate change are piling on each other.
Resilience and Inclusion are Key to Our Sustainable Recovery
Businesses will not only have to be resilient in a lasting recovery, I think they should be more inclusive. For example, job losses resulting from the virus have affected women more than men. This is a cruel irony after women overtook men in having the most jobs in the U.S. for only the second time in history this past December.
Businesses will not only have to be resilient in a lasting recovery, I think they should be more inclusive.
A truly sustainable recovery will have to lift all of us, particularly those who the pandemic has affected the most, including women, people of color, small business owners, and entrepreneurs. The pandemic shutdown has proven that the historically underestimated are critical to keeping our economy going.
Our economy is the large sum of a lot of small things. It’s an aggregate of individual activities—people selling things, buying things, making things, providing and receiving services—and it has been effectively shuttered because nearly all of us have had to temporarily change how we live. A recovery will be gradual, and it will require all of us to get our lives going again by doing all the things that power an economy.
This is to say that all of us will have an important role to play in this sustainable recovery.
Let’s Consider What We’ll Do—and Won’t Do
An important part of my job is to think about the choices we make as a bank, and the impact that they have. We make decisions every day about the short- and long-term outcomes of our financing. Our profession is at the center of the economy, and at the heart of our customers’ individual challenges.
Banks can also fund new businesses that create jobs, opportunities, and new ideas to tackle society’s biggest problems. But making decisions on behalf of the planet is not only about financing what is helpful; it’s about holding ourselves to a higher standard by refusing to finance what is harmful. Bank of the West has already restricted its financing of fossil fuels, big tobacco, palm oil, and other activities harmful to the planet.
Our concerns right now are rightfully our health, our family and friends, and our livelihoods. Each of us can also start thinking about how we can recover together, including where we shop, who we hire, how much we tip, and perhaps even where we bank. Our money has agency, and we have the power to decide how it’s used.
Together, we all have a series of choices that can make this recovery truly sustainable.
As Gandhi said, “The future depends on what you do today.”