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Symbola – the economic benefits of sustainability: cohesive companies are more competitive and appreciated

“We need to make sure that the recovery is fair and sustainable” asserts Prime Minister Mario Draghi. A return to growth, after the crisis unleashed by the pandemic and the subsequent recession, it’s not enough. If in the past “we forgot about social cohesion”, if “we took democracy for granted” and ignored “the risks of populism”, now we need to look at the quality of development in societies that “are experiencing major economic changes.” As such, “we need to support workers through active labour market policies”, creating “new opportunities for women and for young people, as well as retraining those who lost their job.”

Equity, environmental and social sustainability, employment as cornerstones of the new economic season that we are trying to rebuild. Mario Draghi, adamant that “cohesion is a moral duty” as well as a positive economic opportunity, spoke in Barcelona, alongside the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, when he was awarded the “Cercle d’Economia” award on Friday 18 June. That was the same day when, in Italy, a trade unionist was run over and killed by a lorry trying to force its way through the picket line of workers striking against “a logistics hell” in Biandrate (Novara).

A coincidence (“an incidence”, would have said Leonardo Sciascia), embodying strong symbolic values. The world of labour is multi-faceted: the high-tech transformation in digital factories active on the international markets, with improved and sophisticated terms of employment and salary conditions, and the backwardness of a service industry where chasing the lowest price results in stark economic and social imbalances. Heavy contradictions and harsh contrasts that we need to resolve and reconcile.

The contextual framework is precisely that of the “fair and sustainable” recovery rightfully mentioned by Draghi. The means include reforms concerning employment, the laws that regulate it, the contracts, the social buffers. A major commitment to be taken on, without cheap rhetorics, with long-term reforms in politics, social representation and businesses. And the current tools include the implementation of the EU Recovery Plan in terms of green and digital economy, as well as the knowledge dissemination process (in schools, through long-term training), social cohesion, and their translation into the PNRR (Piano nazionale di resistenza e ripresa), the Italian recovery and resilience plan recently approved with flying colours by Brussels. Yet, the challenge that lies in that “paradigm shift” accompanying products, production and consumption, which the best international economic literature as well as Pope Francis and those companies more attuned to the need of blending sustainability and competitiveness, productivity and solidarity, have been pointing out for years, is more widespread.

Reforms, then. And investments, thanks to the resources deriving from the debt taken on by the EU and its States (the “good debt” Draghi talks about, as opposed to the “bad debt” generated by ‘crony welfarism’, the productive public expenditure that generates development), as well as a collaboration strategy between public and private sectors, State and market companies.

And looking at companies and their evolution, intriguing data can be found in the Annual report entitled Coesione e competizione – Nuove geografie della produzione del valore in Italia (Cohesion and competitiveness – New geographies of value production in Italy, issued by the Symbola Foundation, Unioncamere and Intesa San Paolo.Or, more concisely, “cohesion is an impressive productive factor, especially in Italy”, as explained Ermete Realacci, president of Symbola.

The world, so says the Report, is changing and the economy that has been guiding us for years is no longer able to deal with the current crises. Furthermore, “through sustainability, new models related to the use of resources (green economy,

sharing economy, circular economy, bioeconomy) and of shared expertise (open innovation, crowdsourcing), to access information (platform economy) and funding (crowdfunding, sustainable bonds), are enabled by new and digital technologies. These are challenges that encourage businesses, communities, institutions, citizens to act together.”

Looking at manufacturing businesses, especially small and medium ones, we can count 49,000 cohesive companies – those more attuned to their workforce, to the territories they liaise with and all other stakeholders. Their number and competitive abilities are growing. And their economic results are better: they export more (58% compared to 39% of non-cohesive companies); they make more eco-investments (39% compared to 19% of non-cohesive companies); they invest more in the enhancement of products and services (58% compared to 46% of non-cohesive companies); they implement measures related to the Italian Transition Plan 4.0 (28% compared to 11% of non-cohesive companies). Moreover, the percentage of cohesive companies that will invest in processes and products that are more efficient in terms of energy and water consumption and with a reduced environmental impact over the 2021-2023 period amounts to 26% compared to 12% of non-cohesive companies.

In cohesive companies, continues the Symbola report, the ability to build good relationship with the world of culture (through donations, sponsorships, partnerships with cultural institutions, etc.) is significantly higher: 26% compared to 11% of non-cohesive companies.

A further significant figure concerns digitalisation: the proportion of businesses that have adopted or are planning to adopt measures related to the Transition Plan 4.0 amounts to 28% of cohesive companies as compared to  11% of non-cohesive companies.

True, there’s still much to do, but cohesion also means “improving the gender balance”: looking at women’s presence in listed companies’ BoDs, the Report highlights an increase from 170 (5.9%) in 2008 to 811 (36.3%) today, while in boards of statutory auditors there has been a rise from 13.4% in 2012 to 41.6% in 2019, with 475 women auditors.

To companies, cohesion represents the opportunity to increase a sense of belonging and life satisfaction in employees (in 2020, welfare disbursements as per trade union bargaining

 

increased by 19.5%); to strengthen relationships with supply chains and districts (as established by Intesa Sanpaolo, in past years companies within districts have seen their production growing more than the production of companies outside districts); and, finally, to compete in a market that increasingly rewards virtuous behaviours.

While in terms of investments, more capital is injected into businesses that show care for social and environmental aspects. And consumers, “voting with either their wallets or their mouse, are incrementally and deliberately choosing products that respect humanity and environment, and at times support the most sustainable businesses through crowdfunding.”

As the survey conducted by Ipsos for Symbola demonstrates, citizens perceive the themes of cohesion and sustainability as increasingly linked with the notion of quality. Nowadays, two Italian persons out of three are happy to pay a premium price on products and services offered by companies with a cohesive attitude – a difference in price that, on average, amounts to 10% more in favour of cohesive companies.

Where are most cohesive companies located? Almost 70% in northern Italy and more than 50% in three regions: Lombardy (26.3%), Veneto (13.6%) and Emilia-Romagna (13.4%). The Symbola Report also identifies a positive relationship with economic prosperity: the regions with a higher number of cohesive companies are also those with a higher GDP per capita. Territories that benefit not only from economic, but also social and environmental prosperity as, indeed, the correlation between regions where cohesive companies are present and ISTAT’s BES (Benessere Equo Sostenibile – Equitable and sustainable well-being) indicators shows highly beneficial interrelations between “quality of work”, “quality of services”, and “politics and institutions.”