Corporates have a role to play in vaccination rollout, says Cottton On boss

The head of fashion giant Cotton On has called on businesses to do what they can to aid the international rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, with the retailer pledging to donate one million vaccines to developing countries after experiencing a pandemic-induced boom in sales last year.

The billion-dollar retailer, which operates 1400 stores in Australia and internationally, has teamed up with United Nations agency UNICEF’s COVAX program to deliver vaccines to developing communities in over 90 countries, funded through the profits from the sale of Cotton On Foundation products sold in-store.

Cotton On’s chief executive officer Peter Johnson and chief financial officer Michael Hardwick.Credit:Jason South

Peter Johnson, Cotton On’s longstanding chief executive officer, told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald he was surprised to be the first global retailer to work with the COVAX program, which was set up mid-2020, believing that businesses who had the privilege to trade well during the pandemic should aid with the vaccine program where possible.

“We feel it’s everyone has a responsibility to look beyond the short term commercial success of a business,” he said. “Everyone needs to be involved in this, whether it be government or, or corporate Australia, or small businesses. We are only going to get on top of this if we all play a role.”

“Cotton On is more than happy, and proud, to be stepping up to the plate, but I think it’s hopefully the lead we’re taking that others follow, because this is not going to go away until the world gets vaccinated.”

The retailer is one of many which saw its sales soar during the pandemic. Accounts for Cotton On’s holding company released late last year show the business’s revenue jumped over 35 per cent to $1.04 billion, though the business reported a loss of $19 million due to millions in depreciation and impairment expenses, along with higher taxes paid.

It was also a recipient of tens of millions in JobKeeper funds and other similar international schemes. Mr Johnson would not go into detail about the company’s success during the pandemic, though said the business had adapted to COVID “very well”.

Businesses across the corporate spectrum are currently waking up to the importance of ESG (environmental, social and governance) when running their companies, with pressure often coming from funds which are similarly focused on their investments being clean and green.

Cotton On is a private business and has historically shown little interest in any form of external investment, private or public, with Mr Johnson saying much of the company’s top-tier ESG credentials are thanks to ever-heightening customer expectations.

“It’s our job to respond to the customer and the way the customer talks to us. And we’ve got lots of data and insights that are telling us customers, more and more, are looking for brands and businesses that are acting responsibly,” he said.

The funds raised by Cotton On will be given to UNICEF, which then buys the vaccines and delivers them to remote communities through a variety of methods. To date, the COVAX program has shipped 85 million doses.

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