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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

December 2020 – The landscape of business has been radically transformed. Discussions about business action on sustainability are now taking place against a Covid-shaped backdrop of geopolitical and economic shifts, growing – and increasingly visible – inequality, heightened awareness of systemic flaws and human vulnerability, and societal fractures and polarisation. In addition, many businesses are operating in regions with high levels of government, corporate and private debt and growing levels of unemployment.

The implications of Covid19Download the report

CISL invited close friends, Senior Associates and Fellows to a series of conversations to explore the implications of these challenges and transformations for business action on sustainability. This report provides an overview of the key insights that emerged from these discussions.

The changing business context

Some businesses have had ‘a good Covid’, with online retailers, pharmaceutical and technology companies finding ways to deliver value to customers. Others, especially those in commercial property, physical retail, tourism and hospitality are facing existential risks. Most have been faced with difficult questions: how to radically transform the way they operate, to accelerate the uptake of technology and find new ways to reach customers while also building supply chain resilience and ensuring employee wellbeing?

The scale and pace of these transformations have led to a need for many businesses to restrategise, to adapt and to keep adapting. In order to move out of a defensive position and build long-term resilience, many major businesses are recognising the need to understand and engage with the fundamental challenges to ‘business as usual’ and the need to align the business with the development of thriving and resilient societies and economies. This in turn, requires businesses to take urgent action to address the major system shocks we will face if we fail to address the interconnected issues of climate change, the destruction of nature, and growing inequality. 

The faculty discussions

Over September and October 2020, CISL invited close friends, Senior Associates and Fellows to a series of conversations to explore the implications of these challenges and transformations for business action on sustainability. In total, 50 experts with a wide range of backgrounds joined the sessions. Our discussions were framed around five key topics:

  1. What have we learned from Covid about how we can build social, environmental and economic resilience?
  2. What can we learn from our response to the ‘system shock’ of Covid that we can apply to our preparations for the potential system shock posed by climate change?
  3. In light of disruption to business as usual, what should be the priority focus areas for businesses seeking to contribute to a sustainable economy?
  4. Transformation in the future of work: what are the implications for sustainability and what should businesses be paying attention to?
  5. What has Covid taught us about the leadership we will need within organisations to build sustainable economies and societies?


Please refer to this business briefing as: University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL). (2020, December). Accelerating the transition to a sustainable economy in a post-Covid world: what has changed, what have we learned, and what can business do now? Cambridge: University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.

This report supports The Future we Want, a CISL initiative designed to promote a global conversation amongst leaders in business, government, civil society and academia about our long-term collective future.

In late 2020 and early 2021, CISL will undertake practitioner research to understand how perceptions of leadership have changed post- Covid. Leaders are invited to contribute to this research by participating in this survey.


This report was authored by Paul Begley, Amelia Moulis, Lindsay Hooper, Thomas Vergunst and Elodie Cameron. It includes input from the faculty session chairs: Lucy Bruzzone, Alice Spencer, Thomas Vergunst, Amelia Moulis and Gillian Secrett.


Copyright © 2020 University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL). Some rights reserved.


The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent an official position of CISL, the University of Cambridge, or any of its individual business partners or clients.


Published December 2020