This article originally appeared on the OECD Forum Network.

We are entering the third year of a global pandemic that has interrupted our lives, both professionally and personally, in unprecedented, unexpected and, in some cases, irreversible ways. Around the world, international trade has been hit hard by the pandemic. Travel restrictions have halted migration flows and caused labour shortages. Stay-at-home orders have interrupted workflows in factories and stores. 

As Director of Sustainability at The Consumer Goods Forum – the only CEO-led organisation representing retailers and manufacturers globally – I have seen first-hand how the pandemic has impacted the business sector in various ways. 

The pandemic and its on-going impacts dictate that we focus on attaining resilience. At the individual level, resilience can be defined as the ability to adapt well to personal adversity and stress. At the organisational level, per contrast, it means the ability for businesses and organisations to not only adapt well, but to plan, prepare, and progress in the face of big challenges. 

The Consumer Goods Forum has been working with businesses through its new Coalitions of Action – initiatives of leading companies driving accelerated, positive impacts – to not only help make sustainability the norm for its members, but to also drive real transformative change in the consumer goods industry and beyond.

The result is clear: businesses that had placed sustainability – both environmental and social – at the heart of their operations and supply chains have proved better equipped to weather this pandemic than those which had not. They are more responsible and resourceful, and able to sustain themselves in response to major challenges. In short, they are more resilient, and therefore more successful.

This resilience is built on the translation of key values into real policies and actions. The pandemic has challenged businesses to truly “walk the talk” and implement meaningful changes when it comes to sustainability. 

The Human Rights Coalition – Working to End Forced Labour, for example, is a group of companies committed to implementing human rights due diligence systems in their own operations to identify, prevent, and remedy risks of forced labour. Combined with the fact that many companies have already been voluntarily employing human rights due diligence (HRDD) systems in their supply chains, this means that companies have much greater visibility over the recruitment and employment practices connected to their businesses. 

The Sustainable Supply Chain Initiative (SSCI) supports this mission by benchmarking the third-party audit and certification programmes that companies use to monitor and assess the sustainability of their supply chains. With hundreds of schemes on the market, and more emerging each year, the SSCI provides valuable guidance on which programmes businesses can truly trust.

The impact of these actions is not limited to companies’ own operations and supply chains. International trade, the foundation of global business, benefits as well. With stronger HRDD coverage and trusted audit schemes, businesses can be assured that employees are treated fairly, recruited ethically, and that more vulnerable populations, such as seafarers and women, receive the unique protections they need and deserve.

In September 2020, our Board of Directors wrote to the UN Secretary-General, urging the United Nations to work with governments to address maritime transportation concerns, both logistical and humanitarian, created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Although we have since seen some improvement in this area,  this example illustrates why  sustainability is necessary for resilient international trade. Without safeguards and protections for the rights of seafarers, maritime operations were significantly disrupted, creating a domino effect impacting the flow of goods around the world. The link between human rights and successful business could not be any clearer.

If we are to strengthen international trade and continue weathering this pandemic, experts, government officials, business leaders and all other key stakeholders should put sustainability at the top of their agenda. There is only so much we can do individually, but by collaborating together to protect human rights, fight climate change, and make sustainable business the norm, we will be able to benefit from a resilient ecosystem for many years to come.

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