Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Woolworths was beginning a process of rethinking its transformation vision and strategy. The pandemic accelerated the need for such an evolution, with the result that the multinational retail company is in the process of repositioning itself as a company devoted to social justice.
As we emerge from the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, Woolworths believes it is opportune to reflect on the past two years and how they have shaped the company’s thinking about the world and the role of business in it, specifically corporate social investment (CSI).
Woolworths has embarked on a journey to review its transformation vision and strategy, which informs its CSI approach and initiatives. An extensive process of robust engagement led to leadership aligning itself with the vision of “inspiring inclusive growth for all our people”, with “all our people” an intentional choice of words to incorporate the communities involved in its corporate citizenship initiatives.
This became an imperative because, when the pandemic struck, the less privileged communities in which the company operates were affected to a far greater extent.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the concept of Covid-19 as the great leveller that did not differentiate based on wealth, privilege, or access was widely referenced. As the pandemic progressed, the differential impacts of Covid-19 highlighted and amplified the effects of institutionalised and structural inequality, discrimination and
marginalisation. Although the business itself was operating in crisis mode, and found itself in unknown territory, another phrase came to prominence: “We are all in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat.”
Within this context, Woolworths revisited its transformation vision and concluded that, while the vision remained relevant, the lenses through which the company viewed its context had to change. This meant that the ethos and orientation it needed to deliver its vision in a meaningful way also had to shift.
The retailer realised that, for true transformation to take place it had to take a stance on issues of social and inclusive justice. It also had to take an active stand against marginalisation to build “belonging”. And so its Inclusive Justice Initiative (IJI) was born, whereby it committed to the following:
- Intentionally and consciously creating opportunities for access for all its people
- Practising empathy to learn to appreciate, value and respect diversity, and to make space for marginalised voices to speak and be heard
- Taking deliberate action to promote and foster equality and inclusion
- Creating a space where all its people can feel a sense of belonging
and can reach their full potential.
What does this mean for the company’s CSI practice? While there is likely to be little change in what it does, the Inclusive Justice ethos challenges how it does things. The lens of Inclusive Justice challenges Woolworths to heighten its understanding and acknowledgement of proof points of inequality, marginalisation and discrimination, and be intentional about the shifts required to ‘walk the talk’ in Inclusive Justice.
While Woolworths CSI has been evolving a more strategic and transformational approach, it realises that it still has a way to go from an Inclusive Justice perspective and that it needs to intentionally accelerate its efforts.
Its Inclusive Justice orientation has made it reflect on and acknowledge the power it has to make a difference and how that power equally can create a dynamic that is not conducive for inclusive change and impact within communities. Woolworths is, therefore, intentional in its approach to ensure that the perspectives of the impacted communities are always taken into account to ensure a balance in the partnership dynamic.
Furthermore, its Inclusive Justice ethos has heightened its consciousness of the ‘us and them’ scenario that CSI presents, and has led to its deeply questioning the construct of community needing business versus acknowledging co-existence and inclusive and mutual beneficiation.
Finally, one of the key factors highlighted by its Inclusive Justice ethos is a need for fast-tracked and meaningful economic inclusion. Aligned to the socioeconomic development aspect of BBBEE, CSI should be an act of empowerment, enabling inclusive participation in the mainstream economy by working towards eradicating poverty and promoting income generation, education and more.
In summary, within the context of Inclusive Justice, CSI is not about Woolworths as a company doing the right thing in and for the communities; rather, it is about the company and the community working together as equal partners to build and learn together sustainably.
It is not about a corporate with the rank and resources to define rules and policies on its own, but about it creating spaces for the marginalised and less privileged communities intended to benefit, be heard, and be part of creating opportunities and solutions. Ultimately, it is not limited to what Woolworths as a corporate contributes, but about how it contributes in a way that has meaningful and lasting social impact.
Katy Hayes | Strategic Programme Manager