Entering the new normal, sustainably.
The global pandemic has provided the world with the opportunity to begin building towards a brighter, cleaner future. Bernd Eikens, Executive Vice President of UPM Biorefining, shares his thoughts on the matter.
Q) After almost six months, experts say we are entering a post-COVID-19 phase. How would you begin to define this 'new normal'?
These are strange times. We must not think that the transition will be linear and straightforward; it will be uneven and gradual, depending on the circumstances in each region. For example, industries relying on the global supply chain must consider whether to further localise production. From an investor's point of view, certain industries and businesses seem to be more resilient, suggesting that diversification could help in managing risks. Also, we have all seen the rise of remote working and its impact on travelling and face-to-face meetings. There is no precedent for this situation and we must take it step-by-step, innovating solutions for any challenges that come at us.
Q) Is there a role for businesses in helping the world transition to this 'new normal'?
I think that all businesses have a significant role to play in that respect. First, companies must help their employees adapt to the changes while continuing to safeguard their health and safety. Second, from the customer point of view, many questions are being raised about the safety and availability of products and services. Companies can take the lead here by assuring consumers of the robustness of supply chains that will keep them provided for, no matter their needs. For example, at UPM, we have been utilising our sourcing capabilities to provide masks, not only to employees but also for local communities and villages which we are operating in. In times of crises, we must act a little bit like a lighthouse and provide assurances that we are in this together and that we will get out of it together. Such stability is only possible if a long-term vision exists, and if companies are flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances.
Q) How do you foresee the pandemic changing the way businesses operate? And do you see this as a challenge or an opportunity?
I think any crisis triggers innovations and new business and service models. For example, look at the push the pandemic has given to internet shopping in Europe. Here, many people still like to visit brick-and-mortar stores and make their purchases. Online shopping never really took off the way it had in other parts of the world. But now, the pandemic has changed that trend. I saw a report about countries like Italy which saw a jump of more than 80% in e-commerce sales in just one month. Businesses are finding entirely new ways to reach their customers, and many are getting on the digital bandwagon and tapping opportunities they had not noticed before.
Q) The pandemic has seen people curb their discretionary spending. What consumption trends have you seen emerging in the market?
The crisis has given rise to many interesting consumption patterns and behaviours and I am sure economists and businesses will be analysing these trends for years to come. While the initial shock led to hoarding of supplies like toilet paper, it quickly changed to self-reliance with people learning to bake bread and grow vegetables.
In terms of UPM Pulp, we have been strongly supported by higher demand in the tissue sector, which includes kitchen towels, toilet paper and other hygiene products. This looks like a long-term trend as the standard of sanitation and hygiene is going to be raised across the world. People will pay more attention to washing and drying their hands, thus consuming more towels, as well as considering other ways to prevent the spread of current and future viruses.
As the world slowly begins to reopen, we are seeing consumption rise with people going to stores again. However, they are now focusing on local sourcing with a strong emphasis on sustainability. People are using this opportunity to reset, if I may call it that, and look at healthier options for themselves, and they are demanding this from the products and services they consume as well.
Q) That’s interesting. So would you say that the pandemic will influence people to follow a more sustainable path?
I believe we have worked too hard in our attempts to build a more sustainable lifestyle to throw it all away in a knee-jerk reaction to the pandemic. In that sense, I’d argue we stand at a tipping point. Everyone has seen and read the reports about how the air and the oceans have become cleaner with just a few months of inactivity. While that is an extreme example and we won’t be able to stay home indefinitely, it has certainly given people hope that they can build a better planet by making more sustainable choices. We can choose to work towards that or go back to our old ways.
Q) How can UPM become a role model for businesses and sustainability in this 'new normal'?
The pandemic will pass, but the core issues that have preoccupied us like climate change, pollution, resource exploitation etc. will remain. Sustainability will continue to be a big focus and it would be unwise of governments and businesses to ignore that. UPM works in an industry that is utilising renewable and recyclable resources and has a long tradition of sustainability and working towards a future beyond fossils. It has always been at the core of UPM's business and it will help us lead the movement towards sustainability.