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Business and Society

By Beth Gaudin

To support the launch of “Core – How a Single Organizing Idea can Change Business for Good”, we teamed up with Neil, Be Inspired Films and the Ipsos Sustainable Development Research Centre to host an event that would bring together businesses and experts in sustainability to discuss the ideas raised by the book. Looking out on one of the best views of London at New Zealand House, participants wrestled with the role and challenge of businesses getting involved in social change. The questions that created the most debate on the evening were: should we be optimistic about the future and the role businesses will be playing in social change? Should the demand for change be led by consumers or businesses themselves? And will businesses always have to choose between making a difference and making money?

Informing the debate was consumer attitudes research commissioned by Ipsos MORI which found although many consumers do care about the ethics of business, just about as many do not. Just over 50% said they would be prepared to work for an unethical business and it might not be getting better. Millennials, far from being the beacons of hope for a more ethical future, showed no greater desire for ethical businesses than any other age range. The idea that waiting for consumer demand to create supply might be futile and that businesses themselves need to take the lead was succinctly put by one guest: “I don’t want to feel bad for buying shampoo, I just want shampoo to be ethical.”

This brought us to the urgency of the need for change. For many who have long campaigned for more businesses to adopt ethical practices, it can seem that not much has progressed over the last few decades. This means that perhaps we cannot wait for individual businesses to see the light when we are faced by global problems like climate change and inequality, and governments need to intervene much more and legislate for change.

The contrary view expressed was that we may now be at the tipping point because many of the people who began their careers as these ideas were presented a serious option for businesses, are now leading businesses and ready to look beyond purpose and profit as two separate tracks and bring them together under one single organizing idea.

Unilever was able to provide some form of comfort about consumers too: its own research found a third are already choosing to buy sustainable products, and 20% more would do so if there was more information about it (although they too found no evidence that younger generations cared more than previous ones). The belief seemed strong around the table that business can and will change, but the essential ingredients are intent, leadership and time. That is why Core was thought to be such an important and timely addition to the conversation; it offers a clear model for businesses to start along the right path. It won’t happen overnight, but the building-blocks are now all in place.

Of course, no discussion of business and social change would be complete without mention of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Many businesses are now modeling their societal impact through this framework, although there was some scepticism on this approach. A few people reiterated the oft made point that perhaps they are flawed in their design as they allow organizations to pick and choose which goals they intend to work towards, and whether the goals even go far enough in their ambition. It can also lead to what Neil mentioned as a mentality of saying, “Look at all the great stuff we’re doing” but missing the wider point that people won’t truly believe in an organization unless the whole business is modeled around a single idea that generates societal benefit.

Ultimately, the consensus from the debate was that more businesses must look at what their single organizing idea is and the difference they can make, consumers must demand better and governments must regulate and legislate to provide the right conditions for businesses who take this approach to flourish. The night ended with a reminder of the difference between adopting a single organizing idea and simply having a specific business focus. There is after all, an industry that is completely focused on one idea but probably doesn’t achieve all that much for a better society: porn. A tongue in cheek reminder that the focus needs to be on delivering sustainable economic and social benefit.

But you don’t have to take our word for it – here are some clips from the people who attended the event:

Karen Hamilton, VP of Sustainable Business at Unilever

Glen Mehn, Head of Development Innovation at Nesta

Jonathan Glennie, Director of Ipsos Sustainable Research Centre

And find out more here:

Videos courtesy of