A Roadmap for Resilience –
Address Supplier, Investor, Consumer & Employee Needs

COVID-19 is a potent accelerator for sustainable supply chains.

In the same way digital transformation consumed industries the last 15 years, ESG-centered systems will be the new essential mandate for any business that survives these turbulent times. Although both initiatives have been on the radar for most companies, many felt the time horizon for full adoption was still 3-5 years out. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, extreme business disruption began wreaking havoc around the world in a matter of days. Most companies were not adequately prepared. In fact, most experts agree that even those companies with the most robust business continuity plans, which included dry-runs and mock scenarios, were not able to properly respond given the unique aspects of this pandemic, such as extended stay-at-home policies around the world. Global industries plummeted and market capitalization declined across sectors. A new reality was emerging and human-centered industries that relied on the movement of people were suddenly on the brink of collapse. Global supply chains broke leaving a wake of wreckage. Millions of workers lost their jobs, consumers were without essential items, suppliers were left in peril and as we’ve seen, investors retreated in fear.

When all of humanity suffers, business falters.

There has been no global event in recent times that has captured such a dominant role over the movement of people, nor an event that has connected human beings so intrinsically. Many have seen the campaign #WeAreInThisTogether which speaks to the underlying current between all of us as we struggle as a species to overcome this threat. Supply chains are no different and we are seeing the ripple effect across our industries. “Nearly 75 % of companies report supply chain disruptions in some capacity due to coronavirus-related transportation restrictions, and more than 80 % believe that their organization will experience some impact because of COVID-19 disruptions,” according to the Institute for Supply Chain Management COVID-19 Survey: Impacts On Global Supply Chains.

Companies quickly realized there was no recovery playbook to draw from and are now facing a myriad of obstacles and crisis. The only path forward, is one that is built on social and environmental responsibility. To deepen our understanding, we need to look at which industries are most impacted by the crisis, the best ESG metrics to prioritize and finally the specific frameworks to help guide teams as they begin to address stakeholder needs.

INDUSTRY IMPACT

The impact of COVID-19 has been two fold. Most companies are experiencing plummeting consumer demand, where virtually all orders have dropped off a cliff. Others are having the biggest spike in demand ever as their sales hit hockey-stick type growth organically. Both scenarios are leaving companies with critical decisions to make as they navigate this uncertain time. As organizations begin to address where they are on the spectrum, they must also look at the toll on social and environmental ecosystems as they build both long and short-term strategies.

Evaporating Demand

Global industries seeing evaporating demand include: Airlines, Hotels, Automotive, Oil & Gas, Apparel, Fashion & Luxury, Restaurants, Local Transportation, Wellness Services, Personal Care Services, Arts & Cultural Events and Personal & Office Goods. What’s important to note for sustainability considerations is the social and environmental impact this event has caused.

In terms of social, the human toll extends beyond loss of wages, healthcare and safety – but also the impact to the millions of small and medium sized businesses going bankrupt around the world. In the US alone, 99% of employers are small business owners and employ upwards of 57 million people. The pandemic has caused significant loss of wages across value chain, a lack of healthcare and benefits, increased safety risks for the most vulnerable, and bankruptcy for many independent businesses.

In terms of environmental impact, we know that a drop in demand will create substantial waste of unused natural resources already consumed into manufacturing products. We are seeing this play out in the food and apparel sectors as millions of pounds of unused product are being thrown away and burned. The residual effect of COVID-19 on these industries will reverberate for years to come. The temporary lower emissions leading to some climate relief for air, water and wildlife – is not enough to offset the excess supply of consumed resources and increase in waste without distribution due to COVID-19.

Exponential Growth

On the other hand, many industries are seeing exponential growth due to rising demand of stay-at-home consumers: Warehouse Fulfillment, Delivery Services, Cleaning Services, Online Grocery Stores, Farm-fresh Delivery, Pizza Delivery & Food Trucks, Streaming Services, Online Fitness, DIY Products, Hospital Care and Online Education. Direct to consumer businesses for items like food, toilet paper and personal care are all well positioned to reap the benefits of the pandemic.

In terms of social impact, it’s important to note the sudden spike in demand has all but crippled many suppliers and unfortunately many businesses are unable to fully realize the growth opportunity due to dried up or bottlenecked supply chains. In addition, the social and environmental toll will leave many of the temporary workers with health risks and an uncertain future. For those companies capitalizing on this moment and capturing market share, they need to also be held accountable for low wages for “essential” workers, high risk to health with no/few benefits and the impact of temporary work with no guarantees.

The link between global health and business resiliency begins to play out as more and more companies struggle to recover. Front line workers continue to fall ill, stoping production in its tracks.  Factory workers with already compromised immune systems are at high risk, grocery store workers are dying after repeated exposure to shoppers, fulfillment centers can shut down overnight if just one worker tests positive to COVID-19. Safety measures are eroding or ignored, there is a reduction in recycling & upcycling, an increase in waste from PPE is seen in oceans and there is a spike in packaging for shipping DTC as individuals continue to shelter in place.

“The current global industry is bringing to the forefront how social and environmental sustainability is intrinsically linked to our global well-being,” says Marie-Claire Daveu, Chief Sustainability Officer & Head of International Institutional Relations at Kering.

Crisis Management

The path to resilience will be hard won. It will be tempting to neglect sustainability considerations and instead focus on securing supply, driving down price and reducing financial exposure at all cost. The need to generate revenue and get people back to work will dominate procurement and supply chain strategies, but we caution against this frantic approach. Companies, now more than ever, must be strategic in their response and recovery efforts to ensure successful restoration and reinforcement of their brands for long-term viability. The playbook in progress pre-COVID-19 that embraced a more responsible supply chain is not only relevant, but it is the key to managing the crisis.

There are 4 stages in Gartner’s Crisis Management Journey that lay out very clearly the time horizon for resilience. In the short term, response and recovery continue to face limited options due to continued global uncertainty. And in the long term, restoration and prevention depend on the stability of your rebuilt foundation and its ability to navigate the “new” normal.

So, yes, the primary goal is near-term survival, but what is the most fundamental thing to remember here is that the signals you send during this crisis will endure and permeate throughout your future efforts. Simone Cipriani, Head and Founder of the Ethical Fashion Initiative @UN International Trade Centre, calls out a cautionary point for companies trying to rush back to business without proper considerations and that is an unstable short-term solution can have damaging effects downstream: “The big question mark remains about the global supply chains. In fragile countries there could be increases in illegal and informal migration, a boom of the informal economy and a surge in terrorism and illicit trade. These factors could create further unsettlement.”

There is no quick fix and there is no turning back the clock. If you act irresponsibly now, forgiveness may not be awarded to you – especially if your competitors are able to navigate with minimal ESG fallout. Blackrock executives are also sounding the alarm around the correlation between environmental degradation and its impact to local populations, who are typically the backbone of all manufacturing models. “This pandemic is a “Gray Rhino”, a highly obvious, highly probable, but still neglected danger. Rising global temperature extends the reach of vector-borne illnesses, and localized air pollution and environmental degradation increase health risks for local populations,” according to Philipp Hildebrand during J.P. Morgan’s 5th Global ESG Conference.

Look to the fashion industry. A recent example is how H&M paid out all their supplier contracts in full even though they had to shutter all of their retail stores. Primark who tried to cancel contracts – were called out in comparison and have had to since reinstate contracts with garment suppliers they tried to cancel. The voices of workers are amplified by consumers and you’re seeing brands coming back to the table to structure more responsible agreements to safeguard their reputations.

Sustainability is the cornerstone of resilience.

Sustainability is meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs; comprising three pillars – people, planet & profit. Resiliency is the ability to recover quickly from disruptive change, or misfortune without being overwhelmed or acting in dysfunctional or harmful ways. There is an inextricable link between sustainability and resilience. Essentially, both require the ability to survive in the face of threat using a holistic and balanced approach.

The current pandemic is giving every company an opportunity to infuse ESG strategies as they recover, rebuild and reimagine their business. To future-proof supply networks from another reality-altering event, companies must build business continuity plans centered on stabilizing the people and resources in their supply chain. Companies who place sustainability at the center of recovery efforts will ascend to the highest point in the hearts and minds of consumers, employees, suppliers and investors.

Given limited resources, it’s imperative to prioritize how teams think through sustainability efforts and respond in order to both get back online quickly and efficiently, as well as ensure the most stable foundation as you move forward into more developed stages of resiliency. The 3 key pillars of sustainability – Environmental, Social and Governance – must map to key considerations and needs of the 4 primary stakeholders – suppliers, investors, customers and employees.

SUSTAINABILITY PILLARS

When thinking about sustainability initiatives, the ESG model is the best framework to identify which areas to focus efforts on. Regardless of where your company prioritized initiatives pre-COVID-19, the recommendation now is to first prioritize “SOCIAL” efforts as this addresses the needs of the people your organization impacts. So, why prioritize social? First and foremost, when people are in such a vulnerable state they’re not able to support other initiatives. And while supply chains have historically focused on environmental sustainability – arguably due to the more easily quantifiable nature of the outcomes – COVID-19 is a uniquely human crisis. Never before have so many individuals and communities been so disrupted at the same time. This instability is a key risk to the future of our collective supply chains, and we can only solve the problem through individual but directionally aligned efforts.

For a recent example from an enterprise leader, Lars Petrsson, former US President of Ikea, said recently without a doubt, the most important aspect of sustainability today is taking care of people – and this includes all stakeholders: suppliers, customers, employees and communities – as these are the individuals who will help you recover, rebuild and restore business quickly. Key metrics include labor Standards, human rights & continuity, health & safety and customer responsibility. Once the people aspect is on a solid ground, companies can move to environmental considerations, key metrics being climate change, pollution & resources, water security and biodiversity. And then finally, governance, which includes measuring risk mitigation, anti-corruption, corporate governance and tax transparency.

STAKEHOLDER PRIORITIES

The four main stakeholders companies must address with urgency, authenticity and action are: Suppliers, Investors, Consumers and Employees.

Suppliers: The Power Dynamics are Shifting

For all companies, and procurement executives in particular, the supplier relationship is the most critical. Without the right amount of quality supply at the right cost and the right time, companies are left vulnerable. The pandemic has exacerbated this dynamic and companies must navigate strategically. Although some industries are experiencing a knee-jerk reaction to the pandemic and trying to cut orders, cancel contracts and deepening their push for even lower prices, others realize the long-game is to support suppliers with their own rebuilding efforts to ensure a more stable and enduring supply network for the foreseeable future.

For many industries, existing models are breaking. “Just in time” inventory is leaving many products out of stock, “centralized production” is choking flow if capacity can’t be met, and “vetting alternative suppliers” may be nearly impossible without breaking rigorous compliance protocols. We are seeing this acutely play out in medical supply chains where scarce ingredients made in China and India are leading to shortages in life-saving drugs and testing kits. In a highly globalized economy facing a global pandemic, very few companies have the luxury of just bouncing back with aggressive tactics and a business as usual approach. Power dynamics are shifting to suppliers who are in the best position to provide much needed quality capacity at the right time.

For long-term viability, the most strategic response is a socially responsible path that supports and invests in suppliers, enabling them to build financially sound enterprises operated by a safe, healthy and trusted workforce.

  1. Identify strategic suppliers & map relationships against current strengths & weaknesses both short/long term. During the recovery and restoration period, begin mapping out which suppliers are key to both a short and long-term competitive advantage. Identify current strengths and weaknesses to see which levers you can pull.
  2. Honor contracts & offer supplier relief: throttle orders, pay invoices early, low interest loans, send PPE.. Honor ALL contracts – regardless if you plan to work with them post-crisis. All industries are small and suppliers will quickly learn which companies didn’t respect agreed upon terms. At the same time, offer relief – especially financially. The quicker your partners stabilize, the sooner they can begin to perform.
  3. Right any wrongs from the past: return to fair prices, relax penalties, extend grace periods, shorter terms. Fix anything from the past that needs to be addressed. Whether it’s adjusting prices back to reasonable levels or offering favorable payment terms, see this as an opportunity to reset with your suppliers and nurture a new foundation built on mutual-long term success. It will be tempting to want to fight for even lower prices given current economic pressures; however, this is precisely why it should be the opposite. By further squeezing your suppliers, you are damaging ecosystems already on the edge of collapse. If you push too hard, you may lose whatever is left remaining and recovery at that point will be near impossible.
  4. Build a roadmap for each supplier using a “social” impact ambition framework, committing the right resources. Not all supplier strategies are the same. It’s important to build a framework to better help you identify your ambitions and properly dedicate resources accordingly.

The Sustainability Ambition Matrix squarely frames “Social” impact in supply chains around a company’s commitment in addressing the well-being of their supplier’s extended workforce. CORE is essentially “Business as Usual” and means seeing suppliers as predominantly a transactional entity, with the primary goal of getting the lowest price at the most favorable terms. Unfortunately, this approach will suffer in the “new normal” as more long-term success metrics come to light demonstrating a more “partnership approach” will endure over time. ADJACENT is essentially incremental improvement in terms of supplier relations. This path speaks to offering more processes, products and assets to suppliers – including payment upon receipt, extending credit lines, waving debts, offering bonus payments and offering even more benefits. BREAKTHROUGH is what is possible when you start to invest in long-term supplier resilience, such as supporting living wages, toxic-free production, sponsored audits, profit sharing and more. Companies have the chance to help suppliers rebuild and reimagine what is possible for themselves and each other. By thinking beyond the transaction, companies can unlock new ways of working that have yet to be realized across industries and dominate responsibly in the new normal.

Investors: The Growing Case for ESG Investing

In recent years, we’ve seen a tremendous rise in socially responsible investing around the world. This trend comes on the heels of a decades-long explosive campaign around climate change and the role of businesses in acknowledging their contribution to it and now moving to address it.

As a result of the coronavirus, ESG investing is only going to grow and expand its reach. Companies will need to explain to investors how they plan to rebuild their already fragile supply networks without making them even more fragile. Investors realize the most enduring returns will generate from companies with responsible foundations where all stakeholders thrive.

ESG Investment Indicators: We see this as one of the key pillars to acting now because whereas before you may have had up to 5 years to switch to an ESG based supply chain model, now you only have 1-2 years, and that means starting yesterday given the complexity of most supply chains. When you take a step back, it is clear to see why responsible investing will pick up steam in the aftermath of COVID-19. There was already a healthy appetite given strong performances in the stock market, however, the fact that right after coronavirus started to hit the news, ESG funds returned higher returns than their counterparts. In addition, millennial investors have already shown an overwhelming interest in supporting companies with a triple-bottom line. More of them see the best way to scale their impact is through business, versus traditional philanthropy. And lastly, the correlation between both climate and labor risks on business disruption continues to grow. More and more companies are faced with having to abruptly switch or stop production altogether due to negative reputational and operational risks – largely due to unstable environments related issues. Companies must think about how their actions today will impact their long-term opportunity to tap this growing investor segment.

Consumers: The Demand for Action Accelerates

Another growing trend in the marketplace has been consumer activism. This trend has also been exponentially growing in recent years, however, the big shift after COVID-19 is consumers expect companies to rebuild with decency and humanity in mind.

Signals are already permeating across industries that because of extended stay-at-home measures, more people are rethinking their purpose in the world and which brands they want to associate with based on that. Consumers have overwhelmingly indicated they are very interested in the social impact aspect of business restoration, and companies must realize that there are no short-cuts here. Savvy consumers will know how authentic your efforts are versus those that were solely for marketing purposes.

The immediate sustainability priorities for consumers are both meaningful and actionable. As more and more people stay at home, a large portion of the population is shifting value sets, and consumption patterns are changing. Customers will want to see all workers being treated fairly. They will want a strict focus on decarbonization and circularity when it comes to environmental stewardship. And lastly, they want operational efficiencies that reduce/limit waste – which can spark innovation in both designs and packaging.

Employees: Rebuilding Trust to Win Back Workers

There are many correlations between the wants and needs of customers and employees – but employees are distinctly looking for trust. Millions of them were abruptly let-go, or were thrust into unsafe working conditions. Companies like Amazon are already under fire for how they’re treating their employees and putting them in harm’s way. At this moment in time, many see a lack of sufficient health policies in place – leaving all of them vulnerable to illness.

To provide some context, Eagle Hill Consulting did a national poll and uncovered several important conclusions:

Over 163M Americans told to stay home to control the spread

  • 51% say their organization has the technology, tools and training for WFH
  • 49% say their company is increasing remote work in light of COVID-19
  • 55% U.S. employees say they are worried about their job security
  • 39% believe employer is proactive in addressing health concerns of employees
  • 31% say employer is proactive in addressing economic health of the org

And, key EMPLOYEE Trust Considerations are: Wage & Benefits, Safety, Business Health and Dignity & Respect.

In conclusion, the world is watching and we hope companies will consider sustainability as their key to resilience in a post-COVID-19 world.


Divya Demato
CEO & Co-founder