Why businesses need to think beyond corporate sustainability for a truly equitable recovery
March 30, 2021
This piece was originally published in Capgemini Research Institute’s Conversations for Tomorrow, here.
Perspective from Laura Quinn, Purpose
2020 delivered a powerful moment of reckoning to businesses. It also proved beyond doubt that the pursuit of a triple bottom line¹ since the 1990s, the expansion of corporate sustainability in the 2000s, and more recent calls for stakeholder capitalism have failed to deliver a substantially more equitable and resilient society.
The impact of a crisis is not just about the events that take place – it’s also about the fragility of the system it attacks. In the case of COVID-19, our social and economic fragilities were laid bare. To create real, meaningful change in this moment of recovery, today’s business leaders need to look beyond corporate sustainability commitments and use their corporate power to become vocal advocates for far-reaching social, economic, and environmental transformation.
We’re all aware that those most impacted by the pandemic around the world have been racial minorities, the poor, and women. But the statistics are still a harsh reality check. The pandemic infected and killed Black Americans 1.5 times more than white Americans and the story was similar in the UK, where Black, Asian, and minority ethnic people had between 10% and 50% higher risk of death.² The inequities highlighted by the pandemic went far beyond health. Globally, women’s jobs became more vulnerable to the crisis than men’s as they took on an even greater proportion of unpaid labor and childcare. In the US, food-insecure households with children doubled from 14% to 28% since May 2020³, with communities of color most affected. In short, COVID-19 showed that we have a long way to go to close the wealth, income, job, and education divides around the world.
The question we’re left with is how can this be the case – and what does a more equitable and just future really look like?
The good news is that in recovery there is opportunity – how we build back will make all the difference and right now we are at a unique moment in history. We are seeing perhaps a once-in-a-generation convergence of shared ambitions – across consumer opinion, employee demands, political will, and investor motivation. It gives business leaders a powerful moment to go beyond sustainability targets within their own operations and truly meet the moment we are in. If they can harness their corporate power effectively, the leaders of our time will not only transform their own companies but build a more equitable and resilient future for us all.
Digging a bit deeper on this coming together of ambitions, let’s start with consumers. We’ve seen consumer interest and expectations around the behavior of businesses start to rise. According to Capgemini research on purpose-led organizations, 78% of consumers agree that organizations have a larger role to play in society than just looking after their self interests.4 Interestingly, additional data showed that people who were most financially impacted by the pandemic were also the most invested in companies “doing good”.5 And at large, we know that brands and business have high levels of public trust as being both ethical and capable – whether that’s well deserved is another debate.
We also saw a powerful collective reconsideration of who society’s most valuable workers are. It was healthcare professionals, grocery store staff, care home staff, warehouse workers, delivery people, and armies of on-demand gig workers who became our heroes. The painful truth is that they are also those often in the lowest paid jobs without the protections many of us consider basic employment rights: sick pay, health insurance, and the right to a decent, living wage. The impact on public consciousness was that by mid-2020, nearly 70% of American voters said that workers deserve more of a voice in the workplace following COVID-19.6
At the same time, governments around the world have made various bold and vocal commitments on the theme of green, fair, inclusive, and sustainable growth in the wake of the pandemic. From PM Johnson’s Green Industrial Revolution7, to PM Narendra Modi’s G20 commitment to a sustainable and inclusive recovery, to President Joe Biden’s election pledges to advance racial equity across the American economy8 and building a clean energy future9 – the political energy behind a new approach to growth has rarely been so high.
And of course we saw corporate leaders and investors getting in on the act too. In June 2020, more than 200 leading UK-based businesses signed a letter to demand an inclusive and sustainable post-COVID economy.10 A coalition of global businesses leaders, representing a combined annual revenue of over USD100 billion proposed a roadmap to global leaders to create “an inclusive and sustainable post-COVID economy that benefits society, the planet, and shareholders for generations to come.” Investors, too, have made demands.11 Over 100 investors representing over EUR11 trillion of assets under management wrote to leaders and decision makers across the EU demanding a green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.12
Reaching beyond sustainability to deliver a better future
In this global moment of reckoning, where demands from consumers, employees, politicians, business leaders and investors are powerfully coalescing, the C-Suite has an opportunity to step up and use its power to deliver real and lasting change.
But that requires shifting the horizon beyond corporate sustainability targets. Yes they are crucial and yes, every business should be racing to net zero. But mitigating the negative impacts of business operations is what we have been striving toward for years – and it’s not been enough. A new generation of business leaders needs to look at the full range of power that business holds and deploy it in increasingly effective ways to deliver impact on the greatest issues of our times.
That means building multi-stakeholder coalitions that can drive change at scale from many angles at once. It means working with peers to develop pre-competitive agreements that level the playing field in order to benefit the environment, workers and society. It means integrating green and equitable innovation across all stages of the value chain. It means designing policies that protect workers and tackle structural inequalities across society. It means taking bold positions on public policies that are designed to protect society’s most vulnerable and the environment. It means changing marketing mindsets to understand the value of backing the issues that consumers care about. And it culminates in mobilizing armies of employees, consumers, citizens and voters as partners in driving major social and economic shifts – building deeper, more long-term and more powerful relationships with them at the same time.
As we power through 2021 with this unique coming together of priorities, fresh vaccine energy, and a renewed sense of urgency, business leaders have an opportunity to radically reimagine the potential of corporate power to be a force for an equitable, just, and green recovery for all. Let’s imagine the impossible and make it happen.
To speak to Purpose about our business offering please contact Laura Quinn.
¹ Investopedia. (n.d.) Triple Bottom Line (TBL). Retrieved from www.investopedia.com/terms/t/triple-bottom-line.asp.
² NPR, “As Pandemic Deaths Add Up, Racial Disparities Persist — And In Some Cases Worsen,” September 23, 2020.
³ Harvard T.H.Chan School of Public Health. (n.d.) Children’s food insecurity increasing during COVID-19 pandemic. Retrieved from www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/hsph-in-the-news/childrens-food-insecurity-increasing-during-covid-19- pandemic/
4 Capgemini Research Institute, “Why purpose-led organizations are winning consumers’ hearts,” June 2020.
5 Kantar, “Could COVID-19 be the tipping point for sustainability?” June 17, 2020.
6 Fast Company, “Companies’ bad response to the pandemic is leading to greater support for worker power,” May 14, 2020.
7 Financial Times, “Boris Johnson: Now is the time to plan our green recovery,” November 18, 2020.
8 Whitehouse.gov, “Executive Order On Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government,” January 20, 2021.
9 Whitehouse.org, “Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis,” January 20, 2021.
10Corporate Leaders Groups, “More than 200 leading businesses urge UK Government to deliver clean, inclusive and resilient recovery plan,” June 1, 2020.
11 Leaders on Purpose, “Global CEOs Call on Governments and Business to Build a Better “Purpose-First” Economy.”
12 IIGCC, “Open letter to EU leaders from investors on a sustainable recovery from COVID-19.”