Rethinking what matters to business post-COVID-19

Posted in Sustainability on 14 April 2020 By Yvonne Ngo, Sustainability Consultant

As stakeholder values and expectations change, the material issues for companies and strategies to address them will need to adapt.

In between snacking, drinking copious amounts of tea and pretending to exercise at my home ‘workout station’ (read as, small space next to bed using tins of beans for weights), I am increasingly thinking about our shifting reality, and what the new normal will look like in a post-COVID-19 world.

I previously reflected on how businesses have been able to rapidly recalibrate their activities and outputs to deal with pressing issues in this time of crisis. While this may be temporary, we could also be seeing the start of a rapid transformation of the role of business; as people’s priorities and concerns change, companies will have to respond. What are currently considered as the material issues for a business may shift, with stakeholders pushing for more attention on different issues – such as healthcare or financial equality.

Rethinking materiality 

A company’s material issues should form the foundation of a sustainability strategy. To identify them, a variety of factors are considered. For many businesses, it constitutes the impact which a material issue may have on its ability to operate and create value, or how the company may impact the issue. 

For this process, it’s crucial that the best sources of information are captured, stakeholder opinions are attained, and relevant global megatrends are included.  

Right now, we are experiencing a global pandemic, one that will trigger new economic, social and political trends, and which right now are interlinked more so than ever before. These concerns will impact on what is defined as material in a post-pandemic world.

Evolving stakeholder expectations

The way we work, travel and communicate has been transformed. Quite literally, business as usual no longer exists, and not only have businesses like H&M, and Ford, 3M and GE Healthcare taken action to meet the crisis, while employees themselves have implored others to leveraging the scale of business to help. In the case of General Electric in the US, factory workers protested and demanded that the company uses its factories to produce ventilators. 

The spotlight is currently on business to be responsible and create valuable social impact with the full weight of its resources. Whether that sentiment diminishes slightly or not after the crisis abates, it seems likely that stakeholders will continue to hold strong views that business must be a force for good in society. 

There will be the opportunity for companies to develop strategies which will take this into account. In light of the 2020 United Nations Climate Change Conference’s (COP26) postponement due to COVID-19, the press release included a powerful statement: “soon, economies will restart. This is a chance for nations to recover better, to include the most vulnerable in those plans, and a chance to shape the 21st century economy in ways that are clean, green, healthy, just, safe and more resilient”.

At the heart of this, is a call to seize opportunity. To ensure that business is both economically viable and fit for purpose, and mindful of all stakeholders – especially those most vulnerable and often overlooked. 

Opportunity to reshape the world 

Businesses have the power to enact rapid change and deliver economic, social and environmental value. It’s time to leverage that power to shape new mind-sets, technologies, policies and business models, to an enabler of a newer, regenerative economy, and work to solve what had been perceived as impossible challenges yesterday, but may not be in the near future.  

As David Attenborough recently stated: “there’s no moral to be taken from what happened in the past. We’ve got a completely blank sheet of paper in front of us”.

That blank sheet applies to companies as well. What will be important in this new world? Businesses may need to drastically reframe their material issues, and careful engagement with stakeholders will be needed to ensure that that the right matters are considered and sustainability is integrated into the business model and strategy. While the current focus is on the speed of response to coronavirus, in the future the true sustainability leaders will be the ones which are able to meaningfully align their purpose to societal issues for the long-term.

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