Policy Executive Carolyn Thurston Smith considers how three key themes from discussions at the World Trade Organisation Public Forum in October 2019, on the influence of Millennials and Generation Z on commerce, have played out during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the quiet of an early Thursday morning one year ago, I stepped out onto the terrace behind the main building of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to be met by sunrise over Lake Geneva. By half past eight I was sitting in a room close-by to chair a discussion on 'Millennials and Generation Z as customer and client: changing trade for next generation businesses'. I’m probably glad I didn’t know what this past year would throw at me, at all of us and at the WTO trading system itself, but in the spirit of 'throwback Thursday' and 2020 as a year of stepping back and taking stock, here are some of my more positive reflections on how the themes from a year ago – digitisation and virtual interconnectedness, innovation, and social and environmental responsibility - have carried through to the next generation we didn’t expect: trade in the times of coronavirus.

Digitisation, ecommerce and virtual working have arrived in a big way (a statement so obvious, I’m almost embarrassed to write it). It’s suddenly easier for business meetings to be face-to-face from hundreds of miles away, and for several months online shopping for anything other than food, was the only option. Although there have been initiatives to “shop local” and support small businesses in our communities, which might lead to an assumption that we’re moving away from trade, in actual fact it’s fair to assume that most SMEs rely on international supply chains in some way shape or form.

Innovation in products, services and businesses models themselves has been for some an exciting opportunity and for others a survival necessity. Innovation equals success where the vision people have to create a product or service solves a problem or fills a gap in the way that meets people’s needs. Coronavirus has hit the whole world with a specific set of similar problems and gaps at the same time and again the trading system has a central role to play in connecting businesses and individuals with those solutions.

Lastly, social and environmental responsibility as a driver of consumer and commercial decision-making has been key to so many Covid conversations. Numerous studies carried out in the early parts of lockdown to understand the drivers behind consumer decision-making demonstrated the ever-increasing focus on sustainability and the fight against climate change. Scaled up to the commercial sphere, references to sustainable business practices, ESG investing, impact investing and green finance are everywhere. Sustainability, which might once have been a footnote, is now a central theme of branding narratives and a firmly planted flag on the risk register. This has been linked to a collective (re)evaluation of our priorities, our interconnectedness, and our role as caretakers of the planet.

Am I still talking about trade? Yes, absolutely. We said last year that to create trade rules which are fit-for-purpose, we need to understand the context – how the commercial environment is evolving to meet the demands of consumers, businesses and other stakeholders across the globe – so that the rules cater for modern realities. As was abundantly clear, not just in what we heard from our international panelists but in the comments from our equally diverse audience, these trends are not confined to a smallish, highly populated island on the east side of the Atlantic, to the continent of Europe or even to “the West” in general. In the coronavirus era, the themes of our discussion have proven, if anything, more important than we might have predicted. I may be a biased millennial, but this is one thing that I’m very glad to see.