Covid-19 has been dominating world affairs for a good six months, and there is still no end in sight. Small and large companies around the world are challenged in a way that has never been seen before. The crisis is also focusing on weaknesses in global supply chains and precarious working conditions in previously neglected sectors such as the meat industry. And while the pandemic is an unexpected stress test for most companies, many have provided crisis relief in one way or another. With the current world situation, Alex Edmans, Professor of Finance at the London Business School, is cautiously optimistic that there might even be a “redefinition of responsibility”. 

Alex Edmans, London Business School

This March, shortly before the start of the crisis, Edmans published his book "Grow the Pie - How Great Companies Deliver Both Purpose and Profit". In it, he motivates companies to reflect much more on the purpose of their actions and to consider the social challenges to which they could find convincing answers. Ultimately, companies benefit from such an orientation, according to Edmans, because they gain reputation, innovative ability, customer satisfaction and employee loyalty. He now sees the corona pandemic as a possible catalyst for change: "The crisis stimulates managers to think about the diverse challenges facing our society and to consider what resources they can use to overcome them."

Guide to sustainability

There is no lack of up-to-date guidelines and guidance for companies. Organizations such as the OECD, UN Global Compact or B Corporation, to name just a few, have been busy producing publications on this this year. The breadth and depth of entrepreneurial commitment in times of crisis - and beyond - can be read, for example, in the recently published “Covid-19 Business Recovery” framework of the World Economic Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). Among other things, the Geneva-based platform has created a checklist with which companies can check whether they are adequately reconciling “the new normal” and sustainability in their current business plans. 

The list is divided into several areas of action: Firstly, it is about the responsible “reopening” of the company, secondly about supporting stakeholders and building resilience, and thirdly about the factor of sustainability as a competitive advantage. The WBCSD also recommends evaluating the impact achieved in these three areas. But it doesn't stop at headings: The checklist goes into depth in a practical way in a total of 29 sub-items including 224 specific measures. 

Some recommendations have long since become part of everyday life in many workplaces: These include hygiene and protective measures as well as social distancing in order to avoid Covid-19 infections. But even if Plexiglas panes at supermarket checkouts or the disinfection bottles in offices seem ubiquitous: The meat industry and the logistics industry show that there is still a lot of catching up to do in terms of employee health protection. In addition, according to the WBCSD, responsible companies should allow flexible working hours, support working in the home office and accommodate employees with care obligations.

WBCSD checklist

Guidance

In order for sustainable business to become completely normal in the new normal, the WBCSD has published a Covid-19 guide for companies in all industries - here is an excerpt:

Big donor

Philanthropic engagement is also in demand, especially in times of crisis. In fact, donations in kind and in cash were the immediate response to the pandemic across all industries. In Austria, for example, the Erste Group has made one million euros available to the Austrian Red Cross to finance emergency clinics and mobile teams. The furniture retailer IKEA provided emergency aid of half a million euros - mainly in the form of donations in kind - such as shelters for the homeless and women's shelters. OMV released fuel tanks worth half a million euros for aid flights for the transport of protective suits, masks and disinfectants. In foreign markets such as Libya, Serbia, Tunisia and Moldova, the Group also provided emergency aid in the form of food parcels or medical product donations. Microsoft Austria made the Microsoft Teams collaboration platform available to hospitals free of charge for six months, while system manufacturer Christof Industries helped Styrian hospitals with a disinfection device in the reprocessing of masks. Laptops, monitors and printers for socially disadvantaged schoolchildren were provided by the semiconductor manufacturer Infineon Austria and the fittings specialist Blum, while free meals were prepared in the canteen kitchens of the Steirereck restaurant in Vienna and the Intercontinental Hotel Vienna for crisis workers and senior citizens. 

“But you don't have to be incredibly successful to do something for society. Every company, regardless of size, has resources with which it can help, ”says Alex Edmans, encouraging creativity in times of crisis. Ideally, companies should focus on posts that take into account three principles. “First, it's about multiplication: Anyone who invests one euro should create higher value with it. Second, one should pay attention to the comparative advantage: What is the company really good at? What makes it better than the competition? ”And third, according to Edmans, it is about materiality:“ Ideally, you support issues and stakeholders that are particularly relevant to the company. ”

Filter fleece from Borealis for particularly effective face masks.

Supply gaps

The WBCSD also recommends that companies use their special skills and react to bottlenecks in important products and services. Since the global outbreak of Covid-19, the demand for ventilators has, as is well known, increased strongly worldwide. The technology company AT&S quickly became a sought-after supplier of life-saving technologies and switched to the production of circuit boards for ventilators at its location in India. The fruit, sugar and starch company Agrana advanced to become a disinfectant supplier. Initially, the company supplied alcohol, which was originally intended as an additive to fuel, to the processing industry. The company now produces surface and hand disinfectants itself. Surplus from local winegrowers is also used for this purpose.

A large number of companies have reprogrammed their 3D printers or upgraded their injection molding machines to meet the skyrocketing need for protective equipment. The fire fighting technology manufacturer Rosenbauer adapted components of a fire helmet to a face protection and the plastics processor Payer started the production of face protection shields in cooperation with the TU Graz. The plastics manufacturer FT-TEC and the toolmaker Haidlmair are also among the new names in the business with transparent face shields.

Innovative and cooperative

There was also a lot of movement in the surgical masks and mouth protection division: Due to the strong demand, the textile manufacturer Wolford, for example, has entered into mask production for a longer period of time and has opened a production line with a capacity of around 10.000 fabric masks per day in a Slovenian plant. And a modern production facility has also been in operation in a former lingerie factory in Wiener Neudorf since the end of April. “Hygiene Austria LP GmbH”, a joint venture between Lenzing and Palmers Textil, produces mouth protection, FFP2 and children's masks there with a monthly capacity of twelve million pieces, which can be doubled if necessary. A second location of the joint venture has already been opened in Great Britain. The plastics manufacturer Borealis has also entered into a smaller cooperation with the Vienna office supplies brand Paper Republic: The joint social initiative "Mask Republic" produces reusable face masks with special polyolefin plastic, which are said to offer up to four times better filter performance than conventional, hand-sewn alternatives. And the medical technology company MED-EL is working on a new type of "active" breathing mask that emits a virucidal spray and is intended to protect the wearer against infection with Covid-19. 

One thing seems certain: the current crisis offers a wide range of opportunities for innovation, cooperation - and for demonstrating a sense of responsibility. But responsibility should not be limited to emergency help, but ideally be institutionalized in the company: By gradually working through long checklists, as suggested by the WBCSD, or, as Alex Edmans suggests, finding a convincing answer to the following question: "How is the world a better place because our company exists?"

Photos: Istock / Martin Dimitrov, Alex Edmans, Borealis

SOAPS, CHECKS & KNOW-HOW

Companies around the world have provided crisis relief - a selection:

The Dutch-British consumer goods company Unilever and the Brazilian cosmetics company Natura & Co donated millions of packs of soaps and disinfectants and got involved in hygiene education campaigns. Automotive giants like General Motors and Ford (USA) or the Turkish household appliance manufacturer Arcelik started manufacturing ventilators. Luxury goods manufacturer LVMH and cosmetic giant L'Oréal (FR) have produced disinfectants in their factories, while Italy's luxury labels Prada and Armani temporarily switched to tailoring protective coats. The rivals Apple and Google (United States) jointly developed the basis for apps that are used to track the contacts of people infected with Covid-19. US streaming service provider Netflix made $ 150 million to support the badly battered creative industries from India to Brazil to Great Britain. China's tech giant Tencent raised $ 100 million for a "Global Anti-Covid-19" fund and the Chinese retail giant JD.com supplied isolated villagers in northern China using drones. The Chinese dairy company Mengniu continued to buy milk from farmers despite falling demand and store it as powder. Kenya's cell phone company Safaricom waived fees for smaller mobile money transfers. South African Breweries donated alcohol for the manufacture of disinfectants and also took care of the nationwide distribution in South Africa.