By Helen Foord, founder of ELE Global
COVID-19 has changed the world. The pandemic and the associated lockdowns have not merely curtailed the normal life we knew. In some cases they have swept it away entirely. There have been practical issues such as getting used to video conferencing platforms, figuring out how to move around our local supermarkets in one-way systems that preserve social distancing, adapting to being unable to visit pubs, restaurants, gyms and theatres, and learning to plan so many things that formerly would have happened spontaneously and without any particular thought.
But these are merely practical challenges. On a deeper level this situation has called upon us to question, as a society that has been living increasingly close-packed but, simultaneously, increasingly isolated lives, what we actually want and feel we deserve from the world around us, how we navigate our built environment, and how we coexist in it. Abruptly our habits have changed, with profound societal impact.
Social inequality has been accentuated. The economic impact is, and will continue to be, unprecedented in its severity, and hundreds of thousands have found their income, wealth and financial security threatened, damaged or in some cases destroyed completely. Jobs have been lost, businesses have failed, bills have gone unpaid and debts have piled up.
We hear talk all the time, from our politicians and experts in various fields, about the need to adapt to a ‘new normal’. This is all well and good but for the fact that what passes for normal one day is often radically altered the next. How can we adapt to something in a permanent state of flux? Will we return to an ante-COVID normal? No, almost certainly not. Will whatever new normal eventually establishes itself in a stable way be radically different from what we have known? Also almost certainly not.
For all that we have retreated in recent years ever further into our own bubbles, interacting with the world, our friends, our families, often even with people in the same room, via smartphones and messaging apps, the human being remains a social animal. Several million years of evolution has not been wiped out in a few months by this virus, and just as so much of the structure and form of the world around us has evolved over time to suit our needs, so we have evolved to use it. In the immediate term we may need to install plastic screens at cash registers and reserve empty seats on trains, but the fundamental nature of the human being as social and sociable will not change and, ultimately, we will not accept many, if any, of the more outlandish adaptations of our lived environment that have been suggested over recent months.
But that is not to say that we will even want to go back to some of what we knew before. The world of business and the public’s perception of it has been changed irrevocably now and, coming as it does on the heels of the Occupy movement, BLM and more raising awareness of social injustice and inequality, this change is a golden opportunity for business to take decisions and directions that might have seemed unfeasible even at the start of this year.
In short: fairness, inclusivity, sustainability: these are all terms that the world is highly unlikely to let business ignore going forward.
Whether that’s investors calling for a fundamental reshaping of finance and holding companies accountable for managing climate risks, a veritable wave of companies making pledges to become ‘net zero’, 78% of people expecting businesses to act to protect employees and the local community, or whether it’s companies repurposing production to create PPE, allowing priority access to services for the vulnerable and front-line workers, guaranteeing pay and jobs or an increase in organisations making corporate donations to charitable causes.
When you’re running an SME and juggling limited resources, thinking about being socially and environmentally responsible can feel like a luxury even at the best of times. Yet there have been assertions that the business community as a whole (and let’s not forget that in the UK 99.3% of ALL business is SME business) will shape how the world recovers from COVID19.
But it goes beyond this. COVID19 has changed things. Consumers are demanding ethical business practices and, as the pandemic has progressed, haven’t been afraid to vote with their feet and boycott those they deem to be unethical. Consumers have moved away from big brands in favour of smaller, local providers. Consumers want to support ‘real people’ rather than faceless corporations. Ethical and responsible business practices are no longer luxuries but necessities for survival. Now, more than ever, SMEs will benefit from being true to their fundamental values and sharing a genuine message as to what they stand for.
The important distinction now – in a post COVID-19 world – is that responsibility isn’t a ‘nice to have’ or even an expense. It’s what will make a business successful in the ‘new normal’. It’s what consumers are now demanding before they’ll make their purchase. Irrespective of the focus of the business there is a noticeable recognition that responsible business practises represent a cornerstone of growth strategy and financial opportunity.
In November 2020 a UK-wide Opinium poll was commissioned for a new report by The Entrepreneurs Network and the Enterprise Trust. Released on the same day that the United Nations climate change summit Cop26 was scheduled to begin in Glasgow the report, Green Entrepreneurship , challenged the historic assumption that pursuing sustainability is a hindrance to businesses and the economy.
The survey highlights that half of all businesses agree that their customers expect them to take steps to be more environmentally responsible and 57% agree that employees increasingly want to work in businesses that are seen as environmentally responsible. More than half (54%) of SMEs have taken steps to become more environmentally friendly over the past few years, with a noticeable growth in this number over 2020. And, while many SMEs are focused on recovery from COVID-19 there is widespread reporting that business owners are viewing a shift to more responsible business practises as part of their recovery plan.
Significantly this is a change many now intend to not only to implement internally but to pass on to the wider business community through establishing a systemic change and being a force for good. Only a few weeks ago a movement to “build back better” and tackle deep-rooted problems around inequality and climate change resulted in more than 200 leading UK businesses signing a letter calling on the government to deliver a COVID-19 recovery plan that “aligns with the UK’s wider social, environmental and climate goals.” This includes demands that the government focuses funding on sustainable growth and aligns its financial support packages to climate goals.
If we bring it down to simple terms, over the first lockdown the country drew together, supporting front-line workers, looking out for neighbours and recognising, more widely, the value of behaving responsibly within society. It would appear that this ethos has become an important and lasting change within the business and consumer communities. So, do SMEs need to think about being responsible at the moment? Well, yes… if they don’t want to get left behind in rebuilding a post-COVID-19 economy.