Can business be the hero the world needs?

Updated: Mar 5, 2018

I have always been a long-term subscriber to the idea that business has the potential to be a force for good. How can we not consider the idea that such a powerful and wealthy institution couldn’t positively transform the world?

Better put, is it even possible to make the world a more sustainable, equitable and prosperous place without business? In my opinion the answer is no.

In a lot of ways business already does an immense amount of good – it sells us products and services which enhance our life; it provides employment which gives us opportunity to build wealth, confidence, identity, and community with our colleagues; and it can also make a tremendous difference to our communities and environment through generosity of spirit, leadership and innovation. Despite this pretty picture, somehow, it’s not working– the gap between people and businesses is growing wider, when it needs to disappear.

From my experience, this can usually be put down to one driving force - our obsession with profit. I’m not suggesting here that profit in itself is a bad thing, the issue lies with our obsession with it. This obsession drives us not only to just making a profit, but to continuously making it bigger. The bigger the better. At the expense of a lot, and for some, all other things.

Some of this can be put down to plain old greed. There is a bit of greed in all of us – for security, for power, or for wealth. In my experience though, and perhaps surprisingly, greed isn’t the big issue, it’s the fact that it is easy.

Businesses make decisions constantly, and the information and issues are coming thick and fast. As a decision-maker (and every employee working for a business is decision-maker) you are searching for a simple, measurable and replicable criteria to support you make these decisions.

In this context, maximising profit, rather than something like maximising the common good, wins hands down, most days of the week. This thinking permeates business; from deciding between Supplier A and Supplier B, to determining the corporate strategy of billion-dollar organisation. Because it’s easier, it’s measurable and it’s constant.

One thing this approach isn’t; is sustainable. Because all of those things that come at the expense of profit, those little bits which are too hard to factor into our daily decision-making, won’t wait forever. The forests are getting smaller, the temperatures are getting hotter, we are running out of space to put our garbage. The gap between those that have wealth, power and influence, and those that do not, is getting bigger and the difference more and more difficult to traverse.

So if the current approach isn’t working, what other options are out there? This is where purpose-driven businesses ask the question; what if the amazing resources, skills, passion and management systems of business were put, not just to single-mindedly making profit, but to solving the challenges our communities and planet are facing as well?

A lot of people I come across, from all walks of life, are inspired and increasingly wanting to be a part of a business like that– as a shareholder, a leader, an employee or a customer.

This movement is growing; whether its under the banner of purpose-driven strategy, sustainability, responsible business, shared value, social impact or new capitalism; the challenge remains the same. How do we make it easy for people to be empowered to think and act with communities and the planet at the forefront of their minds on a day to day basis, persevering through the chaos of life and layers of bureaucracy?

For me it starts with being brave enough to embrace the complexity which surrounds our great social and environmental challenges and allow it to influence the way we work. I truly believe that if we can all start doing that, decision by decision, person by person, business by business, economy by economy, then we should start to see some of the big changes we need for the better.