Despite wreaking widespread devastation, COVID-19 has had some positive upsides. In the private sector, corporate leaders grappling with an unprecedented crisis have also been offered a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink their ‘purpose’ and embark on an existential journey.
An economic struggle of Herculean proportion, compounded by short and long-term impacts on society and the environment, tends to reveal the true soul of a business and the character of its leaders. Knowing that coronavirus will change the world permanently, how should big companies reset their values to accelerate the transition to a more just, prosperous, and sustainable future?
To mark this week’s Earth Day, we have outlined below three frameworks that companies could use to help redefine their contribution and deliver positive change along the ‘Green Brick Road’ to COP26 and beyond.
Corporate ‘social goods’ – a new definition
Dyson manufacturing ventilators. Burberry supplying surgical masks and gowns. L’Oreal producing hand sanitiser and hydroalcoholic gel. Silicon Valley technologists, often criticised for mercenary or frivolous projects, creating apps that combat social isolation.
These are just a few examples of global businesses who have, at record speed, transformed complex supply chains to deliver ‘social goods’ in the truest sense of the word. The shift big brands have made, albeit temporarily, from aspirational products and services to critical goods providing universal value to a greater number of people, has been striking.
As we emerge from the crisis, corporates would do well to conduct wide-scale audits of their offerings and reflect on the actual societal value of what they are selling. How do we best support and serve our customers to navigate a post-pandemic world? This question should be at the forefront of strategy and new product development teams in the months ahead.
Companies could also look at co-producing social goods with other firms in their sector to maximise both relevance and reach to all areas of society. This would require a strong appetite for pre-competitive collaboration (where competing companies work together towards a common goal), something to which many firms have been naturally adverse.
We’re already seeing remarkable examples of competitive companies working together for the greater good in a time of crisis. Apple Inc. and Google have put aside a decade-long rivalry to form an alliance to track the spread of infections. The rare partnership adds technology to their smartphone platforms that will alert users if they have come into contact with a person with Covid-19. People must opt into the system, but it has the potential to monitor about a third of the world’s population.
Another unprecedented alliance that has emerged from the crisis is between Sanofi and GSK, two of the world’s largest vaccine makers. They will work together to speed development of a vaccine for coronavirus, combining existing efforts in a rare example of large pharmaceutical company collaboration.
If firms such as those above can mobilise against COVID-19, why can’t the same missionary zeal be applied to the fight against climate change?
Innovative capital solutions
In a matter of weeks, the coronavirus pandemic has pushed the world to the brink of a recession more severe than the 2008 financial crisis. The world’s largest economies are making unprecedented interventions, with the UK’s rescue effort estimated to cost upward of 400 billion pounds, or about 15% of GDP.
Long-term financial support of this kind from the state is clearly not sustainable. If we want to reboot the economy, the private sector will need to take a more active role in supporting and investing in the innovations and technologies that will simultaneously create millions of jobs and lead to a healthier, greener future.
There are several ways corporates could choose to funnel their capital. One option is grant funding, which can be targeted and underwritten through specific revenue streams in the business. Centrica’s new ‘Energy for Tomorrow’ scheme, funded through solar feed-in-tariffs, is an example. The scheme has been designed to support entrepreneurs who have concepts and innovations that tackle climate change, lower energy bills and deliver what Centrica describes as “real impact to people and communities”. This may be an interesting model for other businesses to replicate in their respective sectors.
A second option is corporate venture capital (CVC) – an alternative for start-ups to raise funds and build business partnerships. CVC is an accelerating trend, with more corporations placing early bets on untested technology, hoping to capture much of the upside- and excitement – that has long been reserved for traditional VC firms. Admittedly, there is a debate as to whether CVC is a good or bad thing. But in areas such as healthcare, which receives less impact investment than energy, microfinance and food and agriculture globally (according to a GIIN 2019 report), CVC is arguably very welcome. Johnson & Johnson Impact Ventures is a case in point. Launched last year at The Conduit by the global CFO, Joseph Wolk, this innovative finance initiative will play a crucial role in supporting social enterprises supporting nurses, midwives and community health workers who are essential to expanding access and delivery of quality and affordable care.
A third option is research and development. No business in the world has been untouched by the coronavirus pandemic. Contributing to the global search for a vaccine and other scientific research, such as the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator (launched by the Wellcome Trust, Gates Foundation and Mastercard) is one of the exit strategies from this crisis and future pandemics. Regardless of sector, incorporating R&D spend on a global or national level into your CSR budget could be one of the best investments your company makes.
And finally, if you are an institutional or impact investor, there is the option of framing your entire investment thesis around sustainability. Progress on responsible investment varies across the investor community yet there are thought leaders who stand out, such as Capricorn Investment Group. Founded to demonstrate that it is possible to invest profitably while driving sustainable positive change, Capricorn manages around USD 5 billion in assets today for Jeff Skoll, the Skoll Foundation and others who strive for both market-leading returns and large-scale impact.
The corporate voice in climate change advocacy
Since the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change, adopted in 2015 and signed by 175 countries, corporate action to tackle this emergency has been building. Private sector leaders increasingly recognise that transitioning to a low-carbon economy is not only essential to limit climate change impacts, it’s also good for companies’ bottom lines. Hundreds of firms have pledged major carbon emissions reductions, and science-based targets, championed by The Science Based Targets initiative, are becoming standard practice. Take Microsoft: earlier this year, it announced it would be carbon negative by 2030, and by 2050 will remove from the environment all the carbon the company has emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since it was founded in 1975.
Furthermore, financial institutions are coming to terms with the fact that funding fossil fuels is a bad investment. The European Investment Bank (EIB) plans to stop funding oil, gas and coal projects at the end of 2021, a first-of-its-kind move for an investment bank. More than 130 private banks, representing one-third of the global banking sector, including Julius Baer, have signed onto the Principles for Responsible Banking, a framework that seeks to align banking practices with the Paris Agreement.
Yet, much more needs to be done at an accelerated pace by the private sector and other stakeholders across the spectrum if we are to save our planet. One solution is for global CEOs and Chief Sustainability Officers to make it their personal mandate to set the business agenda for climate change action. Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever, is one of our leading proponents of conscious capitalism but he is an exception, not the norm. Now is the time for more C-suite executives in the FTSE 100 and beyond to make their voice heard to governments, entrepreneurs, NGOs, activists and civil society in the regions and markets where they operate.
There are signs that more senior leaders are stepping up and setting an ambitious agenda in the lead up to COP26. A number of CEOs, including from IKEA, Lego, Volvo and Coca-Cola, are signatories to #Greencovery, a European alliance of 180 politicians, NGOs, business leaders, think tanks, activists, trade unions and others calling for us to rethink our societies and model of prosperity. Specifically, they champion the launch of Green Recovery Investment Packages to accelerate a return to climate neutrality and healthy ecosystems. This action is very encouraging at a time when landmark political projects such as the European Green Deal have suffered setbacks due to the pandemic.
There’s also impressive stewardship arising from individual firms. Global asset manager, Aviva Investors, recently launched a ‘Marshall Plan for the Planet’, a capital raising plan to finance the UN Sustainable Development Goals. This included calling for the creation of an International Panel on Climate Finance to monitor finance flows towards hitting the Paris Climate Agreement and make recommendations as to how to close any gaps. Granted, this is a huge challenge for the finance industry and take-up of this plan needs to be monitored. However, if more firms with enormous influence followed suit and set out similar holistic frameworks in their sectors, this would be a game-changer for climate action and could shape the agenda at COP26 and beyond.
The Green Brick Road
We are still a far cry from a completely altruistic corporation that has the pursuit of social value at the heart of its business and not as a side project or on a par with its pursuit of economic value. However, COVID-19 has given the private sector a rare opportunity to step back and reflect on how to get there. These frameworks – redefining corporate social goods, employing innovative capital solutions and more proactive corporate advocacy on climate change – can provide some stepping stones for firms across any sector along the Green Brick Road to a more just, prosperous and sustainable future. Looking ahead, corporates will also need other tools in their armoury – intellectual curiosity, new expertise and skills, horizon scanning, convening power and profile, to name a few – to reset their purpose and help lead us to economic and social recovery. At The Conduit, we’d say the fastest and most effective way to do this would be to embrace and leverage the power of community, and stand ready to help.