• A year of pandemic, protest and societal disruption has created an inflection point for many companies to evaluate corporate sustainability strategies.
  • There has been a concerted effort within industries to recruit and educate senior executives based on social and environmental competencies.
  • Business leaders should look to employ multi-stakeholder coalitions and integrated intersectional approaches.

With over 90 million cases and almost 2 million deaths worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the global population as a whole. Yet it hasn’t taken place in a vacuum: the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable communities – including black, indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC), refugees, and those living in extreme poverty – has exacerbated underlying crises impacting the health and livelihoods of people around the world, from climate change to forced migration to the wealth gap.

As these inequalities embedded within global systems have become exposed, there is a palpable restlessness for change among citizens and community leaders demanding social justice during and after the pandemic.

But those most impacted by injustice cannot be expected to undo it alone. In response to this restlessness for change within society and among shareholders, consumers and employees, corporate leaders are assessing the ramifications of the pandemic and how to define their responsibility in recognizing and redressing social justice with their work, supply chains and social responsibility agenda.

In addition to the surge of corporate discourse on environmental, social and governance (ESG) reporting, a year of pandemic, protest and societal disruption has created an inflection point for many companies to evaluate their corporate sustainability strategies – not only in bolstering their internal practices but also rethinking their commitments to already-vulnerable communities within their ecosystems. These are the same communities bearing the brunt of the current COVID-19 crisis and ongoing crises in climate, healthcare, food systems and other areas highlighted in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In thinking holistically about long-term sustainability and taking an integrated approach to justice (e.g. economic, environmental, gender, racial, intergenerational and social), several businesses are readying themselves to take bold new steps in engaging with already-vulnerable communities during and beyond this moment. How companies define stakeholder responsibility to social justice and take meaningful and credible action will be critical for driving a just recovery and more sustainable futures.

Bold leadership, bold investments in communities

In 2020, the killing of George Floyd, the Amazon and Australian wildfires, and the disproportionate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on BIPOC globally, drove massive attention to the systemic social, environmental and racial challenges that societies face. Defining corporate responsibility with regards to social justice will require bold leadership to understand the corporate purpose in response to these challenges, and to invest in communities and build coalitions for the future.

Edelman Trust Index
Image: Edelman Trust Index

In her tenure as CEO of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi recognized early on how investing in a long-term sustainability vision for communities most affected by a company’s direct or indirect impacts ensures the health and sustainability of current and future consumers, suppliers, employees and investors. Terming it “Performance with Purpose,” Ms. Nooyi upended the way PepsiCo made money by prioritizing limiting the company’s environmental impact, offering more-healthful products, and investing in marginalized populations within the organization and the communities it served along with financial performance.

In order to be replicated, this vision for performing with purpose requires business leaders to define and communicate their corporate purpose within their core business models through the lens of social and environmental justice.

This has led to a concerted effort within industries to recruit and educate senior executives based on social and environmental competencies. Russell Reynolds Associates, for example, leads a practice on sustainable leadership, while leading business schools like INSEAD have established core and executive classes focused on integrating performance with purpose.

Communicating your vision for social justice and sustainable futures goes beyond statements of support in line with the current zeitgeist, and towards the various ways that companies can invest in communities:

  • Through financial resources: PayPal, for example, committed $530 million over the short to long term to support black- and minority-owned businesses and communities.
  • By advocating for policy change: Through their Racial Equality and Justice Taskforce, Salesforce is advocating for policy changes, including meaningful police reform, civic engagement and protection of voting rights.
  • In co-creating programmes with affected communities to mitigate negative direct impacts: Teck, for example, partners with indigenous communities whose land its mines are on or adjacent to, working together on everything from land agreements to economic benefit sharing, to cultural awareness training.

Coalitions for the future

While individual corporate commitments from leadership and direct action within the community are steps towards taking more meaningful action, dismantling the inequalities that persist in our systems requires a diversity of stakeholders, stronger commitments to action, and greater depth in understanding the intersectionality of the inequalities already-vulnerable communities face.

Examples of taking integrated approaches to justice through multi-stakeholder coalitions are emerging, including:

With the COVID-19 crisis proving to be an inflection point in how leading businesses are thinking about their commitments to and action on sustainability and social justice, we can expect many more companies to look for guidance as they start down a similar path through the coming recovery period.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about diversity, equity and inclusion?

The COVID-19 pandemic and recent social and political unrest have created a profound sense of urgency for companies to actively work to tackle inequity.

The Forum's work on Diversity, Equality, Inclusion and Social Justice is driven by the New Economy and Society Platform, which is focused on building prosperous, inclusive and just economies and societies. In addition to its work on economic growth, revival and transformation, work, wages and job creation, and education, skills and learning, the Platform takes an integrated and holistic approach to diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice, and aims to tackle exclusion, bias and discrimination related to race, gender, ability, sexual orientation and all other forms of human diversity.

Multi-stakeholder coalitions and integrated, intersectional approaches will be the models that leaders hope to employ, but what are the best ways to build these coalitions and approaches during this complex moment of pandemic, protest and societal disruption? How can you make sense of your corporate vision for social justice and sustainable futures, and deliver both strong financial performance and impact on redressing the complex web of inequalities affecting your community today and in future crises? What are examples of businesses and organizations making headway on driving collective action around a new vision for social justice and sustainability?

Through its Platform for Global Public Goods, the World Economic Forum is accelerating collective evidence and action on social justice, sustainability and the SDGs. As part of its Lighthouse Projects on Social Justice and Sustainability, the Forum will be gathering examples of how business, government and civil society are taking integrated approaches to social justice and sustainability, and driving multi-stakeholder coalitions in supporting vulnerable communities towards the SDGs.

What other examples exist integrating social justice into corporate sustainability strategies and community partnerships in bold, new ways? Tune in to the Davos Agenda for an upcoming session on social justice and sustainability and visit wef.ch/socialjustice for more information. And learn more about social justice, curated by the Forum's Strategic Intelligence team, here.