Dear business: stop just pretending to care and actually do something!
How many problems could we solve if businesses applied their considerable intelligence and resources to doing that?
I have always believed that if you want to change the world, you do it through business. Businesses can move faster, create products and services that genuinely do good and most importantly they are financially sustainable (ideally, anyway). You cannot say the same about government or non-profits. The former is beholden to lobbyists and voters and the non-profits are dependent on grants, so the great work they have the capacity to do is restricted due to funding constraints.
Business, operated ethically and sustainably, is the best vehicle for change.
And yet, I read the other day that the world’s biggest plastic polluter has partnered with an ocean clean-up charity to remove macro plastics from our oceans.
But how about first we stop putting it in there? Wouldn’t it be a drastically better idea to commit that funding to installing recycling infrastructure, alongside researching alternative materials to use instead?
The tiny amount we can pull out is pale in comparison to the literal rubbish-truckload of the stuff we dump in there every minute. As yet, there is very little we can do about the trillions of microplastics in our oceans. Those pieces are too small for us to fish out, and those rubbish truckloads add to this saturation of microplastics every minute.
Businesses approach things so ass backwards it is maddening. Planting a tree does not make up for the fact your clothing is made of 90 per cent plastic and will fill our waterways with microplastics every time it goes through the washing machine.
Donating 1 per cent to charity does not offset the minimum wage you pay 50 per cent of your team, meaning they have to rely on food banks to feed their family.
Going carbon-neutral by 2040 is not only too slow, but it doesn’t undo the damage done by using materials to make your product that are directly linked to deforestation.
I know, saying businesses “need to do more for people and planet” in a period of time when they are struggling just to stay afloat seems incredibly unfair, but the businesses I am primarily referring to, are not struggling. I am not talking about the small-to-medium businesses that make up over 25 per cent of our GDP and employ almost a third of our working population.
I am talking about the household names whose products are in every home and who dominate the global economy. These are the behemoths whose logos you recognise without even thinking about it, whose founders and chief executives are buying islands and planes while their staff struggle to put food on the table and their suppliers watch their land be swallowed by the sea.
If you create a product, using source materials that exploit growers and communities (cocoa butter, cotton), deforests and destroys habitat (palm oil), or circles the globe during the manufacture process (ironically, batteries) creating enormous carbon emissions, no good you are supposedly doing by ‘giving back’ will mitigate the damage you are creating.
No business is perfect, but you can start evaluating what issues you have in your supply chain rather than just pasting over it with a beautiful corporate social responsibility campaign and assuming customers won't notice. In case you have not been paying attention, consumers are more educated about this greenwashing tactic than ever before. It’s not such a great marketing message, but I promise, consumers do pay more attention than you think, and it will soon be too late to clean up your act.
Businesses that actually care, that actually treat everyone fairly and that actually think about the entire lifecycle of their product are shown to be profitable, engender more customer loyalty and far greater team engagement with greater retention. And everyone knows that a business is nothing without great people.
These businesses that class values alongside financial sustainability are typically deemed social enterprises, but I think that is the wrong way round. Operating ethically should be the way all businesses act as default, and those that do not should be called something else, like sunset enterprises - businesses that risk disappearance due to their careless, destructive practises. I cannot wait until we retire the term social enterprise, because then we will no longer be the minority, but instead the standard way in which businesses operate.
Ethique has been around for almost nine years now and it is fair to say that since then there has been a revolution in sustainable personal care, with many brands releasing solid bar products. The bigger guys are getting in the act too, but only after the smaller brands built the market, educated their consumers and proved it to be a feasible, profitable market. Call me idealistic, but why aren’t people in these companies innovating and solving problems that they’ve contributed to?
Please, can we stop the short term, ambulance at the bottom of a cliff style thinking and instead approach problems with the whole picture in mind. How many problems could we solve if businesses applied their considerable intelligence and resources to doing that?