COVID has impacted the way we live, how we treat others, and where we invest our time and money. A harsh and unforgiving teacher, the virus has forced everyone to take stock of what truly matters and to reshuffle priorities accordingly.

Just look at Americans' altered lifestyles over the last five months, and it is clear to see that significant and lasting change has already occurred. Sustainability, building and strengthening relationships, and social responsibility top the list of priorities for many Americans today.

According to a July report from the Capgemini Research Institute, 79% of consumers are changing their purchase preferences based on social responsibility, inclusiveness, or environmental impact.

2020 has reshaped the American consumer - the political and economic unrest has led to an increase in social responsibility. Americans now seriously question where and how to spend their money. There is no question that smart spending will go to purpose-driven companies.

Companies authentically invested in sustainability and a healthier environment will come out heads above their competitors who fail to leverage the lessons learned in these unprecedented times. An empty corporate nod or vague mission statement will no longer suffice, now that 86% of Americans say sustainability will be equally or more important once COVID subsides.

In the past, many companies either missed the mark when goaling for sustainability or shortsightedly placed profit over principles to keep shareholders happy. As we move into a new normal, consumers will demand companies implement real changes - ones that align with their values. Right now, companies must prioritize sustainability and show proof of their commitment to positive change, or risk appearing unacceptably tone-deaf.

Retailers and suppliers are under pressure to meet the changing expectations brought about by COVID and Black Lives Matter. The cultural shift toward sustainable business practices among retailers and suppliers is long overdue and definitely here to stay.

How can a company move sustainability to the top of its agenda and implement the crucial change? Developing a realistic sustainability strategy and creating a mission statement based on green initiatives are great first steps to a greener future.

Small but consistent steps can add up to real change over time where sustainability is concerned. Things like encouraging employees to reduce the amount of paper they use, and discouraging single-use products in the breakroom. For instance, removing the non-recyclable single-serving coffee pods that pile up quickly in a landfill.

Companies should consider green procurement - sourcing goods and services produced and supplied in a sustainable fashion. Sourcing from local suppliers allows a company to support the local community, cuts down on transportation costs, and usually lessens the need for excessive packaging.

While working toward a fully sustainable office is a great goal, allowing employees to telecommute can significantly reduce gas emissions, fossil fuel consumption, and air pollution. While most companies cannot afford to go the route of REI in selling off its headquarters, even establishing partial remote work schedules for employees is a huge win for the environment.

Beyond the positive environmental impact, studies show that remote workers are better rested, more productive, and experience significantly less stress than their onsite coworkers. Indeed, working remotely adds a higher capacity for quality of life in the work/life balance so often presented as a benefit in the modern work environment.

For companies unable to allow their employees to work remotely, replacing the costly, stressful, and time-consuming business trips with online video conferences would be a smart move in the right direction. After all, the greenest business trip is the one that never happens.

COVID has taught us that we can do away with things and habits that no longer serve us. Going fully sustainable calls for cultural change, not to mention a serious investment of time, focus and money. In the long run, these changes will save your company money, bring positive change for the environment, and build brand trust.

Remember, while COVID brings added operational struggles and financial pressures, the worst move a company can make today is putting sustainability initiatives on the back burner. Companies who push the farthest on sustainability initiatives now will emerge as the clear winners when the global pandemic subsides.