In an exclusive interview with Ethical Corporation's editor, Terry Slavin, the former Unilever CEO explains how the International Chambers of Commerce, which he chairs, is partnering with the World Health Organization in a bid to fight the pandemic

During his press conference last Monday on the rapidly escalating coronavirus pandemic, World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus publicly thanked Paul Polman, along with Ajay Banga and John Denton of the International Chambers of Commerce (ICC), for issuing a joint call to action to the global business community to help fight the pandemic.

The former Unilever CEO is well known for being the leading crusader for business action on climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals. After he left Unilever more than a year ago he co-founded Imagine, a benefit corporation and foundation accelerating business leadership to achieve the 2030 Global Goals. But over the last few weeks he’s devoted his attention to the more immediate global threat posed by the pandemic.

In an exclusive video interview with Ethical Corporation from Geneva, Polman, who is chairman of the ICC and vice-chair of the UN Global Compact, said businesses have reacted more quickly than national governments to the fast-moving pandemic, with the latter prioritising action to close their borders rather than protect the millions of workers and businesses who are at risk as the global economy hits the pause button. According to the OECD global growth this year could crash to 1.5%, half of what it was in 2019.

What is being realised is that to solve this pandemic we need to work on a bigger level of partnership

And while the WHO has historically has been wary of collaborating with the business sector due to the damage done to health from tobacco and irresponsible consumption of sugar in the food industry, “what is being realised is that to solve this pandemic we need to work on a bigger level of partnership [between the public and private sectors]. This is, in fact going to be an acid test for [the concept] of stakeholder capitalism.”

The ICC is encouraging national chambers of commerce to work closely with UN country teams, and will be sending regular advice to its network of over 45 million businesses around the world on how they can take immediate and effective action to protect their workers, customers and local communities and contribute to the production and distribution of essential supplies.

Businesses have acted more swiftly than governments. (Credit: Kevin Coombs/Reuters)

“We also have to help them because a lot of them are small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs),” Polman said. “We don’t want them to go bankrupt either.”

The ICC will also be mapping the response of its members, generating valuable data and insights to help national and international governments respond to the crisis. “It’s very clear from this pandemic that if [countries] have the data and react quickly, you can take better measures.”

Polman pointed out that one-third of people could lose their jobs in the UK, and even a greater proportion in the US, because of the large numbers of workers in the “gig” economy, who do not qualify for paid leave or benefits.

If you are a landlord now, don’t tell me you need two or three months’ rent from someone who isn’t getting paid

“This is a moment we all need to rally together, and there are many different ways we can do that by providing sick leave or health care, or minimum benefits or relief from payments, or paying smaller companies [in supply chains] faster. If you are a landlord now, don’t tell me you need two or three months’ rent from someone who isn’t getting paid.”

With many millions of workers in the hospitality, tourism and garment sectors, companies are also advised to bring in measures to help keep workers in their supply chains afloat, and to devote all the resources they can to making desperately needed supplies like hand sanitisers, face masks, protective safety garments and ventilators.

Polman said he is encouraged by how businesses have already stepped up, with the likes of Microsoft saying it would pay all its hourly service providers regular wages even if their hours were reduced, and Google’s parent company Alphabet providing sick leave to all its affected workers globally, including temporary staff, contractors and vendors.

(Credit: John Sibley/Reuters)

Uber, meanwhile, has announced that it will provide 14 days of sick pay for affected drivers and delivery workers.

Both the Mastercard Foundation and Gates Foundation are among those that have heeded the call to contribute to the Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund, which is aiming to raise at least $675m to help developing countries respond to the pandemic.

But Polman criticised Wholefoods, now owned by Amazon, for asking its employees to donate their accumulated paid time off to colleagues who fall ill with the virus, and companies like Boeing and Kraft Heinz for ploughing money into share buy-backs and raised dividends to prop up their share prices to the extent they can’t afford to support workers when hit by a “black swan” event such as the coronavirus.

I hope that companies will not only do the right thing now but that it is a real tipping point for what responsible business should look like

He said he was talking with big asset managers including BlackRock to press home the point that investors should be rewarding long-term behaviour that protects communities and workers as well as the environment.

“I hope that many companies will not only do the right thing right now to help protect the vulnerable, but that it is a real tipping point on what responsible business should look like.”

Polman said one of the most important things companies can do in the midst of this crisis is “instil hope instead of fear” in their communications to staff and wider society.

On Tuesday, Polman will be one of 40 thought-leaders, including UN Global Compact’s CEO Lise Kingo, Peter Bakker, CEO of the World Business Council on Sustainable Development, and Gilbert Ghostine, CEO of Swiss flavours company Firmenich, to participate in a “virtual fishbowl” online event, GoodafterCovid19, discussing how the world can be reshaped for better after the pandemic is over. (See his column 'This is a wake-up call. We must live within our planetary boundaries to avoid future pandemics')

One silver lining Polman sees is the opportunity for companies to regain trust, which is at record lows amid rising inequality.

Trust is low in capitalism according to Edelman's Trust Barometer. (Credit: Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)

The latest Edelman Trust Barometer, released in January, revealed that despite what was then a strong global economy and near full employment, trust in 2019 was at record lows among the mass population, with 56% of respondents globally believing that capitalism in its current form is doing more harm than good, and respondents in every developed country believing they will be poorer off in five years’ time.

Polman said the immediate response to the coronavirus by business over the last couple of weeks may already be starting to move the dial, with a separate survey by Edelman earlier this month finding that in eight of the 10 countries surveyed  – Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Africa, South Korea, the UK and the US – “my employer” is seen as better prepared for combatting the virus than “my country”, with 62% of respondents trusting employers to respond effectively and responsibly to the virus.

“Even though the private sector is very stretched right now, the balance between business doing the right thing versus the wrong thing seems to be tipping into the positive,” Polman said, “Even companies that may not have the highest trust, like Facebook, have good plans in place,” he said, referring to its plans to give $100m in cash grants and ad credit to 30,000 small businesses affected by the crisis, and $1,000 to each of its employees.

This is a test for business, and it’s one that it must pass

However, with the social media giant attracting strong criticism for not clamping down on the spread of medical misinformation on its WhatsApp messaging service, how much immunity such initiatives provide businesses like Facebook from Covid-19 may be open to question.

The ICC is not the only organisation that is galvanising the global business community to work with each other and governments in response to the crisis. The World Economic Forum has joined with the World Health Organization and partners including Edelman and the Wellcome Trust to create a COVID Action Platform, which includes a Covid-19 transformation map that companies can embed on their websites to enable employees and other stakeholders one-click access to the latest strategic trends, research, analysis and data.

As Edelman’s CEO Richard Edelman said in a blog post: “This is the time for business to adjust its approach and become more strategic and less operational and focus its planning on the long term. .. This is a test for business, and it’s one that it must pass.”

Main picture credit: Stephane Mah/Reuters

This article was altered after publication to include a reference to Paul Polman's chairmanship of Imagine, and his column in Ethical Corporation.


International Chambers of Commerce  Edelman  UN Global Compact  WHO  Wellcome Trust  WBCSD  WEF 

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