Shaping a sustainable post Covid-19 world

Mike Barry writes about seizing the opportunity to rebuild a global economy post Covid-19, that supports both people and planet. Mike Barry is Director of Mikebarryeco Ltd and provides strategic advice to Greenhouse PR. He was previously co-chair of the Sustainability Consumer Goods Forum and Director of Sustainable Business for Marks & Spencer, where he was architect of its pioneering sustainability program, Plan A.

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.

The greatest strength of globalisation – the fluid movement of capital, jobs, people and manufacturing – is ultimately its 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 also seize the chance to create a new, more resilient, healthy and equal society, that lives in equilibrium with nature.

The Financial Crises 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 and 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 post Covid-19, leave a sustainable, lasting legacy.

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

Corporate behaviour is a microcosm of today’s economic system. There are some wonderful stories of corporate integrity, ingenuity and energy to help fight the fire (from Unilever to the UK supermarkets to the very wonderful Timpson). But there are also some truly shocking stories as companies have thrown loyal staff overboard at the first whiff of trouble. Others have flouted all common sense and morality to try and stay open when isolation is what we need. But the vast majority have floated uneasily between these extremes.

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 ones 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, these companies 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 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 entirely accurate, entirely logical narrative on the climate crisis has not captured the attention and energy of most citizens.

The environmental movement can legitimately point to the obfuscation and 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 (published 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 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 (when?) the global food system faces its Covid-19 moment, do we know what we’ll do?

4. Make the 4th Industrial Revolution work for all

We must seize the opportunity presented by the ‘4th 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, both socially and work-wise. That’s what markets are good at and should keep on doing. Generally new innovations are popping up in the marketplace in a piecemeal manner.

But 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 4th Industrial Revolution can work together to create a better future.

There is an urgent need to decide whether this 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 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.

Pre Covid-19, we were already starting to see new companies emerging that were operating on these five principles, offering citizens products and services that were great for them but also great for society and planet in equal measure too.

Some of these startups sadly won’t make it through the short-term economic bloodbath that lies ahead, but many will. Yet they are an inspiration and a pointer to us all, that a great revolution in business is coming, washing away not just the patently ‘bad’ actors, but also the many ‘average’ companies that are watching lazily and indifferently, from the sidelines.

Which type of company do you lead, work for, invest in and shop with? Will we see it on the other side?

Greenhouse PR was created over a decade ago to give a voice to pioneers driving positive social and environmental change. Right now, our mission matters more than ever. If you’ve got a great story and need our help to tell it, get in touch with the Greenhouse team on 0117 214 1250 or email