Is it possible for for-profit companies to be good for society, kind to their staff and gentle on the planet?

October 2019

Now that’s quite a question, and the first of many that we’ll be getting to grips with over the coming months. Our partners Tortoise, the newsroom dedicated to slower, wiser news, are joining us across our London locations to delve into conversations relating to the future of work. And for instalment one, the audience gathered in our Folgate Street conservatory.

When the question was presented to the audience, a resounding ‘yes’ was expressed and felt, but it was clear that there was no blueprint to follow to tick off good for society, kind to staff and gentle on the planet. No handbook to guarantee success – A shame, I know.

 

And so the conversation begun…

To unpick such a broad and challenging question, Tortoise brought along their usual panel of bona fide experts: Giles Gibbons, Founder and CEO of Good Business, Delia Gadea, Food Waste Heroes Programme Account Manager at Olio and Chris Turner, Executive Director of B Corp. The evening was hosted by Tortoise’s very own Liz Moseley.

The expert panel led the dialogue, but as always with a Thinkin by Tortoise, the audience were right there, navigating the junctions that stand in the way of for-profit companies pursuing ‘the best’.

Gibbons discussed employer responsibility, positioning businesses as ‘the vehicle that needs to change’ to navigate the landscape. Take John Lewis as an example, they are considered completely committed to their people, with the John Lewis Partnership ranking as the largest employee-owned business in the UK. They have values and provide value (to employees, customers and wider society) and it was agreed that this is a good barometer for ‘doing good’ in general.

Massive corporations like Unilever were referred to as examples of businesses that are fighting to do good, and in this case, to challenge perceptions. Unilever are known for producing chemical-based goods encased in plastic packaging, but they’re now holding their hands up to the environmental damage that this brings. They are rethinking plastic packaging and moving towards a model that means less plastic, and ensures what is used can be reused, recycled or composted. Alan Jope, Unilever CEO, acknowledges the past and focuses on building a better future.

It’s this dedication to change and doing the right thing that is becoming infectious across industries all over the world. This is especially true for well-established companies with a less-than-perfect reputation (representatives from McDonalds were in the audience too).

 

Why should for-profit companies change?

The necessity of incentives reared its head in relation to companies changing their ways. The group acknowledged that companies can’t change their model purely for capital but being able to predict positive pay-off is a deal clincher.

Plus, if everyone else is doing it, the responsibility to take action becomes that bit more pressing. Nobody wants to be that person shirking in the corner. If companies look the other way, they’ll be the first to lose loyal customers and cease attracting the best staff.

The resounding feeling in the room was that for-profit companies can achieve societal good, be kind to their staff and prove gentle on the planet, but the path is not set. The main barriers include compliance, staff expectations, the consumer role and leader responsibilities, and the interplay between these factors can seem extremely daunting.

 

‘Wokeness’

The change that is happening all around us is reflective of a step change in understanding. With that shift comes a change in behaviour, and the much-needed consideration for the planet and society. The room was aligned in the belief that the government and regulatory bodies should play a role in enforcing and championing change.

Responsibility and accountability are in the hands of us as consumers too though. If we don’t trust that a brand is fulfilling the three commitments, we can seek out alternatives that are, and we frequently do this already.

The path to doing good for all is a journey, and this moment marks a resounding time for change and a milestone to build for the future. Bring on company visions that provide equal weight for people, planet and profit.

 

Out with complacency, in with consideration.

 

We’ll be releasing this discussion as a podcast very soon so keep an eye on our social channels.

Looking for more? To see what other ThinkIns are on the horizon and to sign up to join an upcoming conversation, click here. Upcoming Future of Work topics include ‘is it OK to have an office romance?’ and ‘do you have to be a psychopath to be a CEO?’ – Come and join the discussion.