The emergence of COVID-19 sent shockwaves across consumer goods retailers and manufacturers globally, presenting unprecedented challenges to businesses, communities and individuals. It is clear that the impact of COVID-19 will be lasting: the World Economic Forum estimates a 3% drop in global output, and a 13-32% drop on global trade. These macro impacts bring a human cost: every 1% increase in unemployment brings a 2% rise in chronic illness; disrupted food systems and livelihoods could result in a quarter of a billion people suffering from acute hunger by the end of 2020.
I am not alone in wishing that the COVID-19 pandemic had not happened and worrying about its future impact. For the 400 members of The Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) working across 70 countries, COVID-19 has threatened businesses, supply chains and consumers. Some businesses will not recover. But there has been an unexpected silver lining to this crisis, bringing changes and specifically cooperation which may have taken years to happen otherwise – and which may have longer-term benefits.
What shifts have emerged as a result of COVID-19?
Firstly, I have seen a greater recognition of the need to collaborate. Every business is competitive, and this can be a barrier to collaboration at times. As COVID-19 hit, CGF members needed to continue production, not just for the sake of their businesses, but for employees and the consumers who rely on the daily essentials that our members produce. But they also needed to work together to share knowledge and ensure the survival of supply chains. The emphasis on collaboration was immediate: the CGF Board and WHO Special Envoy David Nabarro issued a statement calling for global coordination in securing consumer product supply chains.
Secondly many of our member business have focused on keeping employees safe. CGF members employ nearly 10 million people, with a further 90 million related jobs estimated along the value chain. Healthy employees and supply chains are the lifeblood for any business: never has this been clearer than during the Coronavirus outbreak. In Portugal, for example, Jeronimo Martins sent at risk employees home with 100% pay and adjusted shift patterns to keep employees safe. The CGF developed a response framework to share examples on dynamic HR and staffing, adaptive work, health and wellbeing and sense of purpose, and collected case studies on issues such as how businesses kept employees safe, what members did about Personal Protective Equipment, and how to safely open thousands of stores across a country. For many businesses, the response to COVID-19 extended beyond companies protecting their employees or supply chains: in the US and Canada, Sodexo partnered with Amazon, Kroger, PepsiCo to help its employees find work and stay working, and supported them if they were out of work.
Building on this momentum on healthy employees, the CGF and GAIN have co-founded a Workforce Nutrition Alliance, which aims to impact 3 million employees in member organisations and supply chains by 2025. CGF is also looking beyond nutrition, for example, at employee mental health, which has come to the forefront during COVID-19.
Thirdly, many industries are connecting with communities and supporting the most vulnerable. The global COVID-19 response has been about protecting the most vulnerable, and CGF members have responded to this. In the UK, supermarket shelves may be better stocked now, but food insecurity is on the rise, with 4.9 million (9%) adults still experiencing food insecurity, and 1.7 million children (12%) living in these households (Food Foundation, 2020). With input from its stakeholders the Food Foundation and Guy’s & St Thomas Charity the UK CGF Collaboration for Healthier Lives, supported the launch of the healthy school meal vouchers to amplify the government’s scheme to reach children going without food due to school closures. We have seen similar initiatives across our membership globally and we launched our Global Learning Mechanism at the end of May to enable our members to learn together how to impact at scale.
Looking to the future
This shift ‘beyond business’ with a greater focus on working together to tackle common challenges has demonstrated the speed at which businesses can cut through challenges to reach solutions. This gives me hope that industry and governments can find solutions to other common challenges in the longer term, such as malnutrition, climate change, human rights and food safety.
COVID-19 is a challenge, no doubt: but these examples of the consumer goods sector’s response to COVID-19 has made me confident we can come through the other side with a stronger, more collaborative consumer goods sector to tackle future global challenges.
Sharon Bligh is the Director of the Collaboration for Healthier Lives Coalition of Action at The Consumer Goods Forum, a global industry network that brings together the CEOs and senior management of some 400 retailers, manufacturers, service providers, and other stakeholders across 70 countries to encourage the adoption of practices and standards that serve the consumer goods industry worldwide. CGF member companies have combined sales of EUR 3.5 trillion and directly employ nearly 10 million people, with a further 90 million related jobs estimated along the value chain.