In the fourth of our Corporate Leadership in the Time of Corona series, Dr Sally Uren explores why we must reform our economic and societal structures, and how businesses are using their vast resources and influence to build societal resilience in a world where all the rules are changing, daily.

Even in our COVID-19 world, there is still a worry that the government relations departments of major corporates might be quietly lobbying to maintain policies and legislation that is slowing down progress towards sustainability, whilst the PR machine of the very same company is making all the right noises about how seriously sustainability is taken within the organisation.

This contradiction matters at the best of times. It matters even more in the worst of times.

 COVID-19 has shone a light on all the weaknesses and fault-lines which characterise the current systems we rely on, from an inflexible economic model geared towards short-term profit maximisation to structural inequalities. It is this deep-rooted inequality that is one of the root causes of the social injustice and institutional racism we see laid bare in so many aspects of our lives, particularly now.

Tackling the root causes of the dislocations we see in our society and the economy will require nothing less than structural reform. This is notoriously hard to do, with failed attempts littering our history books.

However, right now, in this major moment of upheaval, when everything is changing and rules are being re-written on a daily basis, there is an opportunity for business to find its voice, and advocate for the reforms which are necessary to allow the emergence of a fairer, more equitable economy and society. 

Events of the last three weeks in particular have highlighted the need to address entrenched structural inequalities. This is why I welcomed seeing Apple CEO, Tim Cook, announce a $100million project focused on the systemic barriers to opportunity and dignity faced by the black community. While many tech companies have talked about the need for more work in this area, Apple's large cheque appears to be a more substantial move. 

It’s telling that there actually aren’t that many examples of such bold calls for reform. At the moment, businesses are finding it easier to divert funds to provide immediate assistance to communities hit hard by COVID-19 and/or civil unrest. There are some examples where this support will leave a lasting impact, for example in India, business tycoon Azim Premji through his Foundation, along with Wipro, has committed nearly $150million USD towards a nation-wide response to COVID-19, including strengthening primary healthcare services. A good example of a humanitarian response that could lead to deeper structural change.

In terms of potential to create transformational change, somewhere between the long-term impact that will be delivered by calls for societal reform and the short-term donations to immediately support the frontline, is the action that businesses are taking to protect and support their employees and communities.

For example, Verizon has instituted one of the most expansive sick leave policies of big employers. As of early May, the New York City-based company had not laid off any of its roughly 135,000 employees. By the end of April, it had committed over $54million to non-profits.

US retail giant Target has also taken its responsibilities to its employees seriously, raising wages for 300,000 frontline workers and expanding benefits in other areas. Target has also announced a new $10million fund to social justice in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

Directly addressing systemic barriers to change as a route to delivering structural reforms; using humanitarian aid to drive lasting structural changes in healthcare and education; putting employee wellbeing and welfare first - these are all actions that businesses can take right now to help ensure the emergence of what Forum is calling the Transform Trajectory, one of three possible trajectories we see emerging from the COVID-19 crisis. 

It’s heartening to see. It’s equally heartening to see business use its collective voice to advocate for recovery plans with resilience baked in from the start. For example, a recently-published open letter from 213 businesses, investors and business networks urges the UK government to deliver a recovery plan with “an ambitious low carbon growth and environmental improvement agenda” in order to better address expected economic and social concerns.

Promising, but more is needed

As promising as these efforts are, I’m not yet convinced all of this activity is sufficient to guarantee the emergence of the Transform trajectory. I see three steps that all businesses committed to driving change for a sustainable, fair and equal economy and society could consider when designing their advocacy, communication and philanthropic activities:

1.Be bold and highlight that nothing short of reform of our societal and economic structures is needed. Acknowledging that our society and economy mostly only work for the privileged and wealthy is the first step in creating change.

Candidly speaking, we must also all recognise that change starts at home, with each of us acknowledging the role we can play, and scrutinising how our own behaviours and business models are contributing to the very structural inequalities and unsustainable practices we’re trying to tackle.

2.Align advocacy and communications. Let’s once and for all ensure consistency across all lobbying and communications activities to drive positive change, not lock-in our existing failing systems.

3.Design all donations and support to increase the chance of lasting structural change. In the same way governments around the world are beginning to attach conditions to their bail out packages to support a fair transition to a zero carbon economy, what strings can be attached to the millions in charitable donations? How can you build in small actions that help the emergence of more resilient systems?

The voice of business has never mattered more.

The greater the number of business voices that highlight the need for tackling deep-rooted flaws in our current model, the more businesses demonstrate that they can look after their people at the same time as their bottom line, the more willing businesses are to advocate for enabling policies for sustainable development - the greater the chance we will have of seeing the Transform trajectory emerge.

More from the 'Corporate Leadership in the Time of Corona' Series: 

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.

Visit our COVID-19 content hub to find out more.

Photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash