"I think, first of all, that you have to be conscious of where you started and why is your company existing”
If the boss of a long established, multi-national listed company is willing to declare this in public, then there must be something in it.
I think it’s important to let you know what our own purpose is (the clue is in our name). That opening sentence neatly captures our essence, our soul if you like, and yet it is deliberately ambiguous: what makes the world a better place? (Define “better”?) There isn’t a straightforward response to either of these questions, but in attempting to answer them we start to establish the boundaries of the system we create for ourselves. Handily, there are two very clear and prescient global definitions to help us out:
- The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals.
- The 1.5C target set by the Paris Agreement.
The SDGs have been described as the “world’s most important to do list” and there is no doubt that were they anywhere near to being achieved by the target date of 2030, then the world would very much be a better place to live for everyone. It doesn’t matter how big or small you are, what you make or service you provide, every business can act in a way that helps progress towards the Goals.
The 1.5C limit is simultaneously a target, a challenge and a warning. The science is incontrovertible. The further away we get from restricting a global rise in temperature to 1.5C the worse life will be for future generations and the health of the planet itself. To get nearer will require radical, bold action. The time has long passed that business-as-usual behaviours are acceptable but an increasingly common phenomenon in CSR circles is incrementalism, or ‘change-as-usual’. Setting weak, easy to achieve goals that allow existing systems and markets to continue unchallenged will not get us there.
It is not about doing things better, but doing better things.
We define ‘better things’ as those activities that create social, environmental and economic value, that regenerate and not just sustain. To play our part in pushing towards the boundaries of what’s possible we will need to spark ideas that might lead to deep, exponential change, what John Elkington characterises as Green Swans. If we had to choose one reference to help flesh out our definition it would be Project Drawdown’s framework of climate solutions, which have the co-benefits of helping to address some of society’s biggest problems too.
If I was to think about what our purpose might lead to, the end state of the ecosystem we’re making, the utopian vision is one where every one of our clients has an intrinsic value. By logical extension we will too and at that point my work will be done and I can happily retire. The concept of intrinsic value is more than the instrumental financial value of a company. It’s another facet of purpose — think of it as almost going beyond why you exist. The mere fact that your business does at all will be a good thing for the world.
Transmitting impact to the rest of the ecosystem. Photo by Miguel Riopa/Getty Images
I chose the second part of our name to remind me that to create intrinsic value we have to amplify what we do. The meaning is two-fold: to help you, our clients, advocate your purpose through your activities to your wider network of stakeholders; and, more importantly, to drive change and catalyse positive impact in that network too. We strive for our own ecosystem to build something greater than the sum of its parts. Working out why your business exists is all very well as a paper exercise but without acting on it you (and us) will have achieved very little and we’ll simply regress into incrementalism and change-as-usual.
To start with you have to get your own house in order, and initially this is where we can provide you with the most help. In my view the B Corp certification process is the most accessible and holistic available, particularly for small businesses. The framework of the B Impact Assessment will give you a solid foundation to benchmark your current environmental and social performance, set targets to improve and start to crystallise your purpose and mission. It can also map your reporting across to the relevant SDGs. The B Corp movement recognises that all aspects of a company’s impact are interdependent too, reflecting wider society. Social justice is just as important as reducing carbon emissions; eliminating pollution as important as improving workers rights. The importance of interdependence between climate change and social challenges is neatly captured in this quote (source unknown):
“Every tonne of carbon that doesn’t enter the atmosphere now alleviates future human suffering in some way shape or form”
Certifying also compels you to be publicly and legally accountable to all your stakeholders, sweeping away the prevailing capitalist view of shareholder primacy. It’s an important distinction recognised by all B Corps, for example:
“Your company does not just exist to create profit”
That’s Emmanuel Faber again. Under his leadership the Danone Group is one of the largest companies ever to seek B Corp certification; several of its subsidiaries have already done so.
A growing fungal network resulting from a single pine seed. Photo by Professor Sir David Read
Advocating your new approach goes beyond marketing, though that is part of the story too. You may already be doing good things in your business, but now is not the time to keep quiet about it (a phenomenon known as ‘green hushing’). We will encourage and at times challenge you to share your new found sustainable practices and processes with others, and to do so freely so that it pervades all nodes of your company’s network: your suppliers, your investors, your customers, your competitors even. Every interaction your staff have with another organisation is an opportunity to talk about the changes you’ve made. This is where we believe the magic happens, where your culture and positive impact starts to rub off on others so that they begin to change too. One of the best examples of this is Interface, who in the last 25 years has not only transformed its own business but that of its whole sector as well.
Our starting commitment
To be true to our word we have to commit to some action ourselves too. It’s important that we live and deliberately, publicly acknowledge what we believe in. In time purpose AMPLIFIED will become a B Corp and simultaneously start to measure its impact against the SDGs, and our immediate focus is to commence work towards certification. As we develop we’ll define further specific goals to accelerate our own impact. It’s too early in our journey to meaningfully commit to initiatives such as Business Declares, One Percent for the Planet or to become Future-Fit, or declaim that we will become net zero by some arbitrary future date. Right now, that’s not realistic or helpful. After all, our own impact at present is tiny* but by declaring our intent from the start we instantly become accountable to you, our own ecosystem. Oh, and please do hold us accountable. So to begin with…
Glen Affric, Scotland where our Trees for Life grove is located. Photo by Chris Aldridge
Planting a single tree may seem like a meaningless contribution to arresting climate change — a proverbial drop in the ocean, a gimmick — but it’s a simple and symbolic way of recording our work from the beginning. Even if our conversation with you doesn’t go any further, if it causes you to pause, reflect and then act in a way that results in a positive change then we’ll have achieved something. Much about effecting positive change is intangible and the chain reaction that a conversation with us may set in motion is impossible to measure (and we accept it might change nothing). That’s a risk we’re prepared to take and through this small act we ensure that the waves we create in the world never dissipate completely.
*Tiny, but not nothing. For a start every visit to our website results in 1.64g of CO2 being emitted.
Before I go, a note of caution. I’d like to make clear that as we set off on this journey, we do so in the full knowledge that by fulfilling our (deliberately open-ended) purpose there is no guarantee that our work will foster true systemic change for the better. The B Corp movement is unashamedly positive and anchored in a belief that if enough companies join them for the ride then commercial altruism may yet solve the world’s problems, which is an attractive proposition. Whether business can do that quickly enough is very much open to debate, and we are aware that the other institutions such as charities and public bodies are often better placed to make interventions that have a direct positive impact on people’s lives and the planet.
As Anand Giridharas sets out in Winners Take All, many of the supporting foundations of the capitalist system — business schools, billionaire philanthropists, company charitable foundations, banks — truly believe that they are sufficiently enlightened to make a difference, when in reality they often act in self-interest to maintain the structures and mechanisms of the market that enable them to thrive. They are in effect giving capitalism’s fundamental principle of shareholder primacy a free pass by doing some ‘good things’, while conveniently ignoring the ecological and social destruction wrought by the system that they help to perpetuate as a consequence.
If every company was a B Corp, the world would look different and be orders of magnitude better by several measures — but that alone will not achieve the SDGs nor keep future global heating to 1.5C. It’s important that we acknowledge this from the outset.
Sothere you have it. I’m enormously excited to set out our own purpose and what we stand for, and to put this out into the world. I hope it has struck a chord with you, and if it hasn’t, thanks for reading anyway. I’ll be adding other blogs from time to time, telling stories about B Corps and other interesting perspectives about purpose in business as well as more prosaic, useful information that will help accelerate your journey towards making a positive impact. If this is something you want to hear about when it happens then you can follow this blog here, on our LinkedIn page, Twitter and Instagram (or even better, all three). And finally, our challenge to you:
“How could your business make the world a better place?”
We’re all ears.