The Consumer Goods Forum: retailers and brands combine to deliver success in challenging times

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Lee Green, communications director, The Consumer Goods Forum

Many people will say 2020 is a year to forget. The pandemic has had unimaginable consequences on our lives – both professional and personal. However, as I look back over the last eight months and reflect on how retailers and consumer brands have responded to this crisis, we should not forget or ignore the steps taken and successes seen this year. There’s much to be thankful for this November, much to learn from in 2020, and much to look forward to in 2021 and beyond.

Industry response to the pandemic shows agility and commitment 

Before the pandemic hit, there was an assumption that big, traditional retailers and brands were too slow to adapt to change. But COVID-19 has caused many to rethink these assumptions as the global consumer goods industry – both retailers and consumer brands – reacted in ways that ensured supply chains continued to flow, shelves remained stocked and both employees and consumers were safe. Frontline staff deserve our praise too for keeping key resources, such as food supplies and essential products, moving and working in tight timeframes and circumstances to meet increased consumer demands globally. 

It’s also interesting to observe the gear-switch that global consumer goods companies have made during the pandemic and how this has positively impacted wider industries. One of the most significant moves observed by The Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) is the commitment of members to share knowledge and collaborate at scale. Our members shared more than 500 case studies, providing insights and best-practices on how they are acting individually and together to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on their businesses and their consumers. The CGF also hosted a COVID-19 webinar series, attended by CEOs and technical experts from the world’s largest retailers and consumer brands, tracking the COVID response from China to Europe and then the Americas. 

Of the over 500 case study examples shared by our members, it’s clear they fall into specific categories: getting shops open and protecting employees and shoppers; keeping food and goods moving along the supply chain; ramping up ecommerce businesses; and remote working and mental health. COVID-19 made the industry think harder about opportunities for collaboration and efficiency on all of these. However, perhaps just as impressive is they were also quick to emphasise the importance of not forgetting the other global issues like climate change and forced labour.

It’s not just the pandemic – CEO-leadership and Coalitions of Action help drive change globally

Before the pandemic, retailers and brands were already committed and working hard to resolve industry issues and becoming more sustainable companies – in many senses of the term sustainable. To help support these companies, at the start of 2020 the CGF was rolling out a new global strategy to help members drive more impactful collaborations that benefit both people and planet, and seize the opportunities offered by purpose-driven business models. 

Even as the global pandemic began to grip the world, and consumer goods companies were focussed on ensuring the immediate and sustained supply of essential goods, our members – including their CEOs – were still focussed on wider ambitions and commitments. 

We have seen this with the launch of our Forest Positive Coalition of Action, which was supported by the CEOs of Mars, Incorporated and Carrefour, on tackling deforestation, as well as the CGF Virtual Knowledge Series discussion between the CEOs of Tesco and Unilever back in June. We also saw a number of Board members sign a letter addressed to the UN Secretary General, calling on governments to unblock sea transportation routes and protect seafarers’ wellbeing.

These are just a few examples of our members activities during 2020 to demonstrate the commitment to positive change. The Coalitions all have commitments to improve the level of transparency and reporting in 2021, while the Collaboration for Healthier Lives Coalition (CHL), as an example, is already reporting on the progress and impact of its local initiatives in the London Boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark. Other CHL reports include those on initiatives in China, Turkey, France and the US. 

2021 – the ‘New Normal’ is managing the unpredictable

2021 will be a big year for the leaders involved in our Coalitions; not less so as they better understand the long-term impact of COVID-19, Brexit and new presidents and governments on their businesses and consumers. 

What we do know, however, is COVID-19 cannot stop our commitment to tackling global issues: the health of people and our planet will remain critical; safety, trust and honesty will continue to impact players at every stage of the value chain, and actions will always speak louder than words. And, the UN Food Systems Summit, COP26 and Nutrition for Growth Summit are just three global events that the world should be watching in 2021. Food has to become sustainable, as does our health, and these will be high on the global agenda.

While 2020 has been a painful experience for many, there’s a lot that we can look back on about how retailers and consumer brands responded, and they can be proud of that response. The industry entered the unknown, shared experiences, learned together, and responded wholeheartedly. Employees also stepped up and did their employers proud. These experiences and learnings will be critical as we look ahead and plan for the unpredictable year of 2021.