First published by Forum for the Future, May 28, 2020

The COVID-19 crisis is having a devastating impact – both in terms of lives lost and economic disruption. At Forum for the Future, we believe that it would be tragic to go back to yesterday’s “business-as-usual”; moments of radical disruption like this provide unprecedented opportunities to reinvent the future. We are therefore calling for business, governments, civil society and communities to seize this moment in helping to deliver a more just, sustainable and resilient world.

What businesses do, and what businesses say, are going to play a major part in the way different countries ‘build back better’ after the coronavirus crisis.

Governments tend to listen to the voice of business more than they do to civil society, think tanks or academics. That’s not necessarily a good thing. In many parts of the world, there’s what can only be described as a ‘shared incumbency’, with both politicians and business leaders working closely together to reinforce their prior self-interests (in terms of votes or market share) and to see off more competitive innovators or insurgents. We can already see that in the intense lobbying from hard-pressed carbon-intensive sectors seeking bailouts from their governments without any conditions being attached to that taxpayer support. This is the big debate in the aviation sector. And a lot of that lobbying goes on behind the scenes, beyond the reach of public accountability.

Which means that the voice of progressive companies is going to be even more critical. As are their actions, both in responding immediately to the coronavirus crisis and in the way they innovate and adapt their business models for the very different world in which they will need to prosper.

The recent Special Report on COVID-19 from Edelman’s Trust Barometer (based on a 10-country survey) confirms how important this is going to be. The majority of respondents said that ‘their employer’ was the institution they trusted most; in eight out of the 10 countries surveyed, employers were seen as better prepared for the virus than governments. Expectations of business were uniformly high across all 10 countries, with nearly 80% of respondents looking to business not just to protect their employees but to support local communities.

After nearly 25 years working closely with businesses around the world, and with a presence in America, India, Asia-Pacific, as well as here in the UK and Europe, Forum for the Future is well-placed to track the way companies are responding to the coronavirus crisis – through what they’re doing and what they’re saying. For the next few weeks, we’re going to be publishing a weekly column, highlighting where we see real leadership emerging – while keeping an eye out for examples of corporate behaviour that entrench the status quo or worsen poor environmental and social practices.

Right now, it’s good to be able to report that global businesses are already out there saying a lot of the right things in terms of putting the Climate Emergency at the heart of governments’ recovery programmes:

  • On 6th May, the Energy Transitions Commission (which represents 40 high-profile global corporates, including both carbon-intensive and low-carbon businesses) came up with seven specific investment priorities for building ‘a healthier, more resilient, net-zero global emissions global economy’. It just about got the balance right: for instance, even though it insists that the automotive sector will need significant support, that support should be based on car-scrapping schemes, promotion of EVs, and clear commitments to the phasing out of the internal combustion engine.
  • On 13th May, 300 of America’s best-known companies appealed to both Chambers of Congress to accelerate a ‘climate-smart recovery’, including putting a price on carbon as soon as possible. CERES, the originator of this initiative, called it ‘the largest-ever business advocacy day for climate action.’ There’s zero chance of President Trump even bothering to read their recommendations, but Green New Deal initiatives in the US are very much at the forefront of political debate, with a growing number of Republicans beginning to see which way the wind is blowing on climate change.
  • On 18th May, over 150 global companies, with a market capitalisation of $2.4tn, all of which are signatories to the Science Based Targets Initiative, made a powerful case for measures that will speed progress towards a net zero economy. Supported by We Mean Business and the UN Global Compact, this initiative was warmly welcomed by NGOs and by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres.
  • On 19th May, a coalition of UK-based manufacturers (as members of MakeUK) demonstrated strong enthusiasm for a recovery strategy based first and foremost on driving energy efficiency, welcoming confirmation of the Government’s promise to allocate £9bn towards energy efficiency schemes of one kind or another over the next decade. This powerfully reinforced the conclusions of the National Engineering Policy Centre, representing 39 major engineering organisations in the UK.

This is all good stuff – even if it is primarily European and US companies taking the lead. Companies in India and Asia tend to be less comfortable in getting involved in high-profile advocacy initiatives of this kind. Of course, there are many exceptions, including some of our own partners, such as Olam and Aditya Birla Group, who are leading change on many fronts. 

So what do all these warm words amount to? The wording in all of these declarations is always cautious, intent on changing the variety of apples on the apple-cart rather than overturning that apple-cart altogether. There are very few references to social issues, or to the fact that poorer communities are impacted disproportionately by COVID-19. There’s very little direct criticism of contemporary capitalism, and the idea of a ‘socially just transition’ is all but invisible. The kind of explicit call we heard from Unilever’s CEO, Alan Jope, on the 10th anniversary of its Sustainable Living Plan on 6th May, that global companies should be working together ‘to drive a new model of capitalism and build a better future’, represents a rare but very welcome excursion into this much more controversial territory.