Universal threats can unite opposing camps in a common effort. The new coronavirus has hit almost every country and has created a shared understanding that every effort to contribute, however small it may be, is needed to overcome the crisis. Many businesses, typically criticised for giving priority to profits and to the interests of shareholders and managers, are part of the common response to the virus.
News media is abundant with stories from different parts of the world on how businesses, small and large, contribute to fighting the crisis. For example, British American Tobacco, the cigarette maker, is one of the companies adapting its existing commercial technology to develop a vaccine against COVID-19 on a not-for-profit basis. Other companies, like luxury goods maker LVMH, have rearranged their production lines to produce supplies that are much in need during the outbreak of the virus. Smaller businesses contribute too by offering help to medical workers, non-profit organizations, and self-isolating individuals.
Businesses are also acting to reduce the impact of the crisis. Landlords, like the owner of King’s cross estate in London or the largest owner of commercial real estate space in Detroit, are freezing rents for tenants. Some of the largest companies, even in the United States with its flexible pro-employer labour laws, like American Express, Starbucks, and Cisco, have decided to retain their employees in pursuit of long-term prospects rather than to take measures to protect short-term profits. Those businesses that have no choice but to reduce costs on employment—such as department stores, restaurant chains, entertainment companies, and airlines—are extending those measures to top managers by cutting executive pay. Many large companies reduced their dividends and suspended share buybacks. Even shareholder activist hedge funds, the main antagonists of the short-term capitalism narrative, have walked away from or settled their demands to allow companies to focus on more urgent matters of preserving staff and reinforcing balance sheets.
It is very unlikely that the virus has suddenly changed the corporate world. Clearly, the motivations of businesses for doing good may differ. While some have a genuine sense about their role in fighting the virus and helping those in need, many others view the crisis as a well-calculated opportunity to amend their battered reputations as partners and employers and gain advantage over competitors once the pandemic is over. But regardless of the motivations, the reaction of the corporate world to the pandemic offers three lessons for the promotion of responsible business practices in normal times.
First, in the absence of legislative action, change in corporate behaviour happens when there is broad consensus in society that collective action in response to a threat is an urgent priority. It is not poor ethics or morals that hold businesses back from working together with other parts of society, but disagreements about the scale and urgency of the problem. The collective response to coronavirus is the result of a broadly shared agreement on what companies are expected to do in the crisis that has emerged in almost every affected nation. Remarkably, companies are behaving differently even in the absence of legal reforms – laws on corporate purpose and directors’ duties are the same today as they were at the outset of the crisis.
Company founders and managers are a diverse group, and so are their preferences. Some may have serious concerns about global challenges facing humanity, such as inequality—whether of income, gender, race, or opportunities—or climate risks. But even these businesses may struggle in behaving responsibly because of concerns about becoming uncompetitive against less enlightened businesses. The classic collective action problem forces would-be responsible businesses to make the rational decision of ignoring inequality and environmental problems.
Where market failures like this are strong, the usual response is government intervention, for example, through the adoption of stricter employment protections or environmental standards. The reaction to the virus shows the power of a decentralized solution to the problem through collective social backlash. By increasing the costs of ignorant behaviour, broad society consensus promotes responsible business practices across markets and nations.
Second, businesses need clear guidelines as to what practical steps they are expected to take to meet the common goal. Governments have been clear about their expectations from businesses during the COVID-19 crisis by recommendations to preserve employment, cut dividends and share buybacks, and lower rents by property owners. Similarly, society in general has been sending clear signals about the expected behaviour by approving some actions taken by companies and showing discontent over undesired conduct in the form of widespread backlash.
For example, when Johnson & Johnson, a medical company, announced plans to invest US $1bn in developing a COVID-19 vaccine, the company’s shares jumped despite the not-for-profit nature of the project. By contrast, the decision by Sports Direct to keep shops open as essential or the decision by Adidas to skip rental payments on its stores led to public outcry and calls to boycott products in tabloid and social media. Similarly, the reluctance by the UK’s largest banks and German carmakers to cut dividends raised many eyebrows. Not only were some of these companies forced to apologize and reverse course, but their reputations were damaged too. Widely shared public reaction can thus send a clear message to all other businesses what to do and how not to behave.
Third, developing consensus over global challenges requires international cooperation. The exceptional scale of the current crisis coupled with the fear that governments responding to the crisis differently to others will face fierce questions explains why, even in the absence of coordination, all nations individually have acted similarly. But countries are likely to be affected differently, at least in the short run, on many other important matters. For example, the degree of underlying inequality varies across countries and some countries experience more acute climate-related risks, like forest fires or rising sea levels, than other nations. This means that atomistic development of consensus through peer pressure, unlike in the case of COVID-19, is highly unlikely. Local action, meanwhile, cannot offer meaningful solutions because markets are still global and responsible governments and businesses will not be able to compete if others do not act similarly.
To sum up, if we want businesses to act responsibly, we need to deliver a clear message by developing consensus over global challenges and communicating it clearly to businesses as one shared global voice. We also need to set out what practical steps businesses need to take to achieve the common goal – whether through government nudges or endorsements in social and news media. Where threats affect nations differently, this can be achieved only through cooperation on a global scale. Given the rise of national sovereign interests and national governments, we are facing a huge task in developing broad consensus on matters that are important. The arrival of responsible capitalism may thus take time. For now, until this consensus is formed, blame us and our elected governments, not businesses, for the failures of capitalism.
Suren Gomtsian is an associate professor in business law at the University of Leeds School of Law and Co-Deputy Director at the Centre for Business Law and Practice.