Coronavirus Response: Shaping a sustainable post-Covid-19 world

Coronavirus Response: Shaping a sustainable post-Covid-19 world

Coronavirus Response: Shaping a sustainable post-Covid-19 world

Mike Barry, former director of sustainable business at Marks & Spencer, sets out his blueprint for building back greener, more resilient business after the current crisis

So the day of reckoning has arrived. Having staggered on zombie like since the financial crisis of 2008, adding environmental (climate, pollution and biodiversity), social (inequality) and political (Trump, Brexit et al) crises to its charge sheet, globalisation circa 1980-2020 has finally fallen flat on its face. Ultimately, it’s greatest strength – the fluid movement of capital, jobs, people and manufacturing – was it’s Achilles Heel, as the virus spread rapidly across a hyper-connected world.

Today we have the acute Herculean task to protect the lives of hundreds of thousands, the health of millions and the livelihoods of billions. Nothing should detract us from winning this war. But as we fight it we should seize the chance too to create a new, more resilient, healthy, equal society that lives in equilibrium with Nature.

The financial crisis of 2008 prompted a huge rescue effort globally that won a pyrrhic battle but ultimately lost a war. The largesse of society sticking-plastered the old system, rewarded the actors who’d brought it to its knees whilst turning a blind eye to globalisation’s structural failings.

We cannot do that again. So here are five observations on what business needs to do to make sure our short term rebuilding efforts leave a lasting legacy:

1. Be useful, in all that you do, all of the time

Post-Covid-19 we will not see a blind eye turned as it was to the banks in 2008-12 as they crept back to the old ways on the back of taxpayer support. The companies that prosper in the next decade will be the one that have taken the management speak of ‘purpose’ and turned it into reality. They pay their taxes. They cut dividends and executive pay as they receive bailouts. They do the right thing by their customers and employees. Above all they are socially useful and relevant in all that they do. They can answer proudly the question: ‘What did you do in the war?’

2. Energise citizens around a shared vision of a thriving society and planet

We’ve paid lip service to the reality that social and environmental sustainability are two sides of the same coin. The very logical narrative on the climate crisis has not captured the attention of most citizens. The environmental movement can legitimately point to the lies of pro-fossil lobbyists but we must also reflect that today’s approach is too distant from everyday life to create the willingness to upend in a matter of weeks all aspects of modern life in a way that the Covid-19 response has managed. The words ‘just transition’ still sit too far to the edge of the whole climate crisis debate. They need to be put front and centre.

3. Take a systems approach, in thought and deed

It was striking to read the UK government’s last five yearly risk assessment in 2017 laying out the meta societal risks facing UK society. There was Pandemic Influenza ranked as one of the most likely occurrences and certainly the one with the largest detrimental impact on society and the economy. Similar documents will have been produced across the world by other august bodies. Many good people and organisations will have used this analysis to develop detailed response plans. But the overwhelming sense of the last couple of months has been of leaders being surprised by events and rushing to make up responses on the hoof. There seems to be a disconnect between risk strategically assessed and the development of detailed response plans resourced and practised. The two need linking together, not least for the global food system which is already facing huge strains as it tries to feed more people in the face of more extreme weather events. Strains that are much reported but little acted upon. If – or when – the global food system faces it’s Covid-19 moment, do we know what we’ll do?

4. Make the Fourth Industrial Revolution work for all

We must seize the opportunity presented by the Fourth Industrial Revolution to build a better future. The last decade has thankfully presented us with a myriad of innovative digital platforms to keep in touch through today’s isolation socially and workwise. That’s what markets are good at and should keep on doing. But generally new innovations are popping up in the marketplace in a piecemeal manner. As Covid-19 has shown us, when we put ourselves on a war-footing we can make big things happen fast. Let’s now have a collective political, social and corporate view on how the many moving parts of the Fourth Industrial Revoluion can work together to create a better future. There is an urgent need to decide whether the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be owned by the ‘few’ perpetuating today’s flawed, unequal centralised system or whether it gives back power to all citizens on whatever level of participation they want to organise.

5. Double down on partnership – none of us are an island

Finally Covid-19 has demonstrated that no one can prosper alone. There is such a thing as society. We are all part of it. Yet our fractious political leaders at just the time we need more global collaboration have descended into petty bickering and point scoring. Business has in recent years shown a greater understanding that it collectively depends on a thriving society and planet but is still light years away from the scale and pace of partnership required to create a new economic model in which individual companies can win and lose but only if all of society and the earth prospers. Business must put partnership at the heart of what it does all the time, not just on specific issues (e.g. palm oil sourcing) but also on systemic change too (e.g. the global food system).

So, those are my five principles for ‘new, better’ business. Which type of company do you lead, work for, invest in, shop with? Will it be useful, relevant and prospering on the ‘other side’?

 

Mike Barry is director of mikebarryeco ltd, and former director of sustainable business at Marks & Spencer

Read more: businessgreen.com

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