Paul Hargreaves: Could COVID-19 help us be a Force for Good?
Good often comes out of bad situations, and only those of us old enough to be born before the World War II can remember anything quite as bad as this. Many of us can look back on our own personal stories when we have been in a dark place not able to imagine any good prevailing ever, yet it often does. Many speakers in the world I have just started to inhabit have stories of a trauma or accident that launched a career helping others change their lives for better.
Looking back at my own life to a divorce, a business that almost failed when employing nearly 50 people and even a time when I was hospitalised with malaria, I can see a tremendous amount of positive change for me personally and my business coming out of each and every one of those seemingly gloomy scenarios. There are many of us right now going through pain and worry and not able to see the future with any confidence at all, but trust me, if you stay strong and hopeful good will prevail.
The same is true on a larger scale too; both at a political and business level. Let’s consider climate change. We should absolutely be sinking the huge resources nationally and globally into reducing the number of victims of Covid-19. But I can’t help thinking each time I see the trillions of pounds and dollars being spent, how much we could have achieved ten years ago in reversing climate change with just perhaps a fraction of those resources. Governments around the world saw the pandemic as an emergency and mobilised resources very quickly, if perhaps a little late in some places. If those in government really saw climate change as a real emergency and potentially far deathlier in time than Covid-19 then resources would have been mobilised and we would be closer to the targets in the Paris Agreement.
Those like me who are very concerned about climate change currently fall into two camps during this pandemic. There are pessimists who have said to me that when we are out of this, they are concerned that environmental safeguards will be lifted in an attempt to boost consumer spending. All hands to the pump, as it were. Just look at petrol prices now in the UK, lower than they have been for years. Only today I have seen a post on LinkedIn saying that we are born to shop and consume and even though we can’t currently go out to the shops, people are making themselves feel better by spending and consuming. The author like others is expecting a great consumer explosion when we eventually emerge from lock-down and is rejoicing in that possibility.
I would rather hope that the main trend went in the opposite direction. Perhaps with more people learning to be content at home with their families, going for walks, playing games and talking to each other western consumers can learn that the best things in life are, indeed, free and that we don’t have to spend money to be happy. In fact, many of us know it is perfectly possible to be happy with very little and this is main truths learned by me on my many trips to Africa and other developing countries. Often this is one of the main learnings too for others coming with me; the joy of seeing those with virtually nothing with a smile on their faces. Those in the developing world can teach us about true fulfilment, coming without consuming far more than we need. As an optimist I hope and believe that we will see a significant shift away from consumerism after this pandemic. And I am writing as a CEO of an FMCG company!
I also expect data to fuel our optimism further later this year. There are those that fear that environmental regulation may be ripped up as a sacrifice on the sacred altar of GDP in an attempt to boost the economy. However, I believe the opposite could happen. With virtually no planes flying and very few cars on the road all over the world, we will see results later this year demonstrating a reduction in the levels of carbon in the atmosphere, currently running at the very dangerous levels of over 415 ppm. I have no idea what that reduction may be, but any reduction will give encouragement to the millions who care, and we will all be encouraged to make more changes to further reduce carbon. We will increasingly believe that we can reverse climate change; we can turn this doomed planet around by some sacrifices and lifestyle changes.
Just think of the number of meetings that have happened on virtual platforms over the past three weeks. Meetings that people would have flown to or driven to have happened without losing any of their impact. Businesspeople throughout the world have learned how to work effectively in different ways and we are not going to revert to all our old ways as soon as lock-down is ended. Working habits have changed for ever. The same is true for people travelling to offices 5 days a week. Employers who previously have not trusted their people to work from home are discovering that those people can be trusted and are more effective in performing many tasks while working from home. The virtual office is here to stay. (by the way Zoom is currently valued higher than all American airlines added together.)
Finally, one other observation I have made in the past few weeks giving me optimism is that the business world is becoming more polarised. It is becoming easier to distinguish between the good companies that care for people and not just for profits, and the less good companies who only exist for the benefit of their shareholders. There is a litany of companies over the past few weeks who have made bad people decisions and have had to reverse them within 24 hours due to pressure from their employees and consumers alike. Think of Weatherspoon’s, Sports Direct and even the usually well-behaved Waitrose, who said they weren’t going to pay their partners self-isolating at home one day before reversing the decision the next day, admitting they had made a mistake.
On the other side of the coin there have been companies that have shone out as bright lights for doing exactly the right thing and treating their people well even before the government help for furloughing was announced. Timpson’s stands out as a force for good here. Many of our own independent retail customers have discovered their true purpose as vital parts of their own communities and have gone the second mile to ensure that the vulnerable and needy are able to eat even if they are stuck at home. Some have worked crazy hours for little reward but will see the fruits of their labour by increased customer engagement after all this is over.
We have choices before us and this could still go either way, but I do think the cards are stacked in favour of us coming out of this pandemic with fairer, more compassionate businesses taking their responsibility for the planet and people more seriously. I hope you will join me in standing on the right side and continue to look forward in hope during these difficult times for a better future.