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Hard Rock exec reflects: Where will COVID-19 take sustainable capitalism?

What happens to corporate action on sustainability, social impact and purpose when shocks hit the economy? The COVID-19 crisis recalls two past moments.

In the late 1990s, throngs of protestors regularly rose up against the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, governments and multinational companies. Global meetings of multilateral bodies — such as the 1999 World Trade Organization gathering known to history as the "Battle of Seattle" — faced street occupations by thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of angry citizens.

Concerned with poverty reduction, workers’ rights, sustainability and the perceived ills of neoliberal trade policies, these loosely allied activists feared and decried what they saw as totalizing corporate power. Direct-action clashes with police, enervated by volleys by water cannon and tear gas, raised questions about corporate accountability, which helped those of us working in corporate social responsibility (CSR) at the time. 

This moment ended abruptly in 2001, with the terrorist attacks of 9/11. As governments and public fears spun toward terrorism and security, large-scale demonstrations related to CSR and sustainability strategy largely disappeared.

While CSR did not die, its immediate priority waned. Economic uncertainty led companies to contain costs and cut CSR budgets. Those companies (there were many) focused solely on facile reputation management, without committing to improving real impacts, quietly welcomed the recess of vociferous dissent. Media lost curiosity over corporate social and environmental malfeasance. Labor market power shifted to employers, and consumers’ taste for green and conscientious options flickered. 

But advances from this period survived: Forward-thinking companies began to align environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance with long-term business planning. These standards guide investors who seek companies that manage impacts on the environment, employees, customers, suppliers and communities, while controlling company leadership, executive pay, internal controls and shareholder rights.

Accountability regimes continued as the economy ticked up until the next crisis — the 2008 financial meltdown. Cue images of traumatized Lehman Brothers employees lugging bankers’ boxes from office towers. Markets and asset valuations cratered, and business leaders white-knuckled their firms into survival mode, laying off masses and cutting spending.

Through the post-COVID-19 moment, successful companies will renegotiate supply chain arrangements, restructure debt, keep customers and retain top talent.
What happened to corporate responsibility? In the immediate 2009-2010 period, spending on community and philanthropic programs and internal capacity-building definitely dropped. But a next wave began. Wall Street financiers, blamed for triggering the crisis, infected a reputational malaise across big business. Smart companies seeking substantive action to repair public and stakeholder trust adopted ESG disciplines.

The push to embed sustainability into operational models was boosted and normalized by investor commitments. ESG analysis became data-driven, goals-based, measurable and focused on disclosure. Corporate governance became a preoccupation, shifting the language of social responsibility from feel-good chatter about "doing the right thing" toward definable visions for social purpose and impact, articulated as a constituent to business success.

More than a decade later, what is the legacy of 2008 crash? ESG became established practice, not a fleeting fad. And we knew it, unlike 2001 when we weren’t sure new methods would last.

So how will ESG, social impact and purpose ride off the COVID curve?

If the worst predictions for economic seizure prove true, many businesses will be worse off than in either 2001 or 2008. Those companies who retrench to starvation fundamentals almost certainly will freeze continued investment in impact and purpose for some period.

What will happen at companies most committed to progress? And what shifts might occur within areas of social purpose and sustainability? Here are but a few thoughts and questions.

Are your priorities right? Crises tend to clarify what matters when budgets command "keep" or "drop." For those leaders who have done formal materiality assessments for sustainability and impact, those frameworks should guide decisions. If you find they aren’t, reconsider how you rank issues and stakeholders. Any new priorities, such as employee and customer health and safety, moving up in the matrix?

What actions should be re-framed? COVID-19 could redirect current plans. For example, I have been working on sustainability standards for health and wellness for our employees and guests, which relate to indoor air quality and physical environments. What will pandemic threats change here?

Will social-distancing hit community investments? Companies prepared for virtual connectivity, both technologically and culturally, will be better poised to shift not only their work-from-home arrangements but their community partnerships. Virtual volunteering is emerging as an efficient way to expand employee volunteerism with nonprofits: Should it grow in the future? Will it work for all companies and their relationships? 

Is the carbon emission collapse temporary? Unsurprisingly, if you shut down the economy, energy usage and carbon emissions will drop. But, when things recover, will emissions return to pre-COVID-19 levels? Will lowering them be a priority that shapes preferences for more virtual meetings and less business travel?

Will progressive companies prosper? In 2019, some key voices challenged the primacy of shareholder-driven capitalism, namely the U.S. Business Roundtable and Black Rock CEO Larry Fink, who argues that purpose and profit are inextricable. 

Belief in a new "sustainability" model of capitalism is growing — will it endure? Or will mad scrambles to save profitability and market capitalization stall or kill a new paradigm? The proposition — that top performing, durable companies also embrace sustainability — is about to be tested again.  

Trust and brand value, elements viewed by some as intangible, could help prove that profit and purpose cohere. Through the post-COVID-19 moment, successful companies will renegotiate supply chain arrangements, restructure debt, keep customers and retain top talent. Money, people and commitments will flow to the trustworthy — companies known to have discipline, transparency and consistency.

Those same qualities underpin ESG success. So I predict that companies committed to purpose and sustainability will preserve and build on past action. Why? Because they are invested, and they think long-term.  

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