COVID-19 and why conscious capitalism can be the new normal

By Dr Tanusree Jain, Dr Harry Van Buren and Dr Adrian Zicari.

Some companies have transformed their processes to fill up the dwindling supplies of products essential to cope with the coronavirus pandemic. Big and small distilleries such as Jameson and Powers Whiskey in Ireland, Moët & Chandon Champagne in France, 11 Wells Spirits in St. Paul, Minnesota, and BrewDog Beer in the UK are helping with manufacturing hand sanitizers and supplying alcohol in a bid to help with the shortage of it.

Free subscriptions are being offered by software providers like Zoom, Microsoft, and Google to support the growing demand of work for home users, allowing people some modicum in productivity and normalcy at a time when both are needed by workers and companies alike. Hotel chains such as The Fletcher and Van der Valk in Netherlands have begun converting some of their hotels into emergency facilities for corona patients, and an Indian startup, Mylab is determined to provide testing kits at one fourth the market prices.

There are myriad other business examples of repurposing existing skills in new and medically useful ways: Reliance Industries in India is ramping up production of masks, Zara in Spain is manufacturing hospital gowns, while Alibaba in China is collaborating with multiple suppliers to help governments of Asian and European countries protect billions facing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Other companies are enabling access to essential goods to make life easier, especially for the most vulnerable among us. This includes voluntary reduction of prices of hygiene products by fast-moving consumer goods companies in India such as Hindustan Lever and Godrej, proactive action by grocers and supermarkets like the German chain Lidl to prevent hoarding and stockpiling of essential commodities, and introduction of priority shopping hours for those most vulnerable at American retailers such as Target.

Around the world, including in Ireland, legislation seeking to provide various forms of support for industries decimated by the pandemic, such as travel and tourism, is being debated and passed. There is also considerable discussion about public economic support for people who are losing part or all of their livelihoods. For every country, getting through the pandemic with a minimum of loss of life and human suffering is the most important goal.

While these are all necessary and important conversations that will continue for many months to come, herein lies an opportunity—and we argue, a necessity—for business to rethink what it does in ways that embrace more conscious forms of capitalism.

Conscious capitalism is understood as unleashing the heroic spirit of business whereby companies act in ways that better reflect our collective human journey and the present state of our world today, and in so doing use their resources and competencies in ways that promote the common good and help ensure that one day there will be a sense of normalcy in which people and communities can flourish.

Another interesting trend is the organic emergence of problem-solving communities, which have formed on a just-in-time basis to respond to local needs and circumstances. Notably an Irish team is leading an international community of engineers, designers and medical professionals to design and develop low-cost ventilators. In a similar vein, Malaysian 3D printing and design communities are coming together to produce face shields. The exercise of human ingenuity and creativity is meeting real human need around the world, and these organic problem-solving communities offer important insights about how companies can do the same.

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There will be lots of time in the future to have debates about business responsibility, regulation, and the place of business in society. When there is some semblance of normalcy—which we hope comes soon but we know may not—there are real lessons that we can learn from the responses of companies, large and small, to the pandemic. Business is always going to come under critical examination because of its power, responsibility, and numerous examples of irresponsible behavior. We hope that even as we yearn for a day when we can look back at the COVID-19 pandemic as something that happened in the past, the kinds of conscious capitalism that we are seeing today in contemporary responses to the pandemic become part of the “new normal” of business. The challenge for business today and tomorrow is this: how can businesses use their skills, creativity, resources, and capacities to create real value for stakeholders, environment and society? This challenge was fundamental to discussions about business ethics and corporate citizenship before the pandemic: it is essential now and will be absolutely essential from this time forward.

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Dr Jain is Assistant Professor of Ethical Business at Trinity Business School, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, Dr. Harry Van Buren is Barbara and David A. Koch Endowed Chair in Business Ethics, Opus College of Business, University of St. Thomas, Minneapolis, USA, Dr. Adrian Zicari is Teaching Professor at ESSEC Business School.

Media Contact:

Catherine O’Mahony, Media Relations Officer | omahonc7@tcd.ie |