Good company: the capitalists putting purpose ahead of profit

Good company: the capitalists putting purpose ahead of profit

As protest and environmental alarm escalate, a new breed of business is prioritising values other than money and growth

In a volatile world jolted by protest, revolt and environmental alarm, capitalism is showing signs of twitchiness.

For decades, business has been all about maximising profits and keeping owners happy. Now, thousands of companies and organisations are experimenting with broader values – purpose over profit, staff and communities ahead of shareholders – in order to meet the mood of the times.

Driving this shift in consciousness is a phalanx of upstart, sustainable businesses. They cluster under different groupings – Conscious Capitalism, B Corp, The B Team, Just Capital – but all share the same central objective: to reshape capitalism for an environmentally endangered age.

The best of these boast laudable motivations. In the past, if you wanted to change the world, you went into politics or joined a campaign group. Given the shift of power and resources to the private sector over recent decades, the smart money is increasingly on business to deliver solutions.

Not business as usual, that is. Plastering products with eco labels or providing perks to employees will make not a jot of difference if, behind the scenes, companies are still happily burning fossil fuels and browbeating suppliers.

“If businesses really want to be part of this movement for change, then great. But that change has to be radical and transformational. If not, it’s empty words and spin,” says Katie Hill, a spokesperson for the ethical certification body B Corp, which now counts over 3,100 registered members in over 70 countries.

Of course, the buy-in of big business comes with risks. Greenwashing is perhaps the most obvious, but some practices are more subtle. After the Fairtrade organic chocolate brand Green & Black’s was taken over by food giant Kraft, for example, it started to produce confectionary that was neither organic nor Fairtrade-certified.

Corporations are aware of a growing clamour, from consumers, employees, regulators, and even some investors, for business to demonstrate a social purpose beyond profitmaking.

But can leopards change their spots? Most of the frontrunners in the “purpose economy” were set up to solve a specific social or environmental problem. Only then did they go about putting together a business to deliver it – not vice versa. In that sense, it’s a question few of them have had to ask.

Take Fairphone. Located in Amsterdam, this hyper-ethical phone manufacturer insists on only using metals and other materials that are sustainably sourced and can be traced back to their origin. It’s a commitment that grew out of the firm’s origins as a campaign group against abuses in the telecoms supply chain.

“Back then, we decided that we were not really creating any alternatives, so instead we should become part of the industry ourselves,” explains Eva Gouwens, the chief executive of the maverick phone brand.

Yet retrofitting a traditional profit-maximising company is a different story altogether. The Belgian materials firm Umicore offers a very rare example of success. Once a dirty, old-school smelting firm, it has reinvented itself over the last decade or so into a pioneering recycler of waste metals.

With ever lower margins in the smelting business, Umicore’s motivation was as much economic as it was environmental. The same cold logic enjoys growing traction in other old-school industries, from energy firms facing peak oil to carmakers confronting ever stricter eco standards.

Also pushing companies to transform is a growing awareness among individual business leaders about the destructive route down which shareholder capitalism has pushed the planet.

As Douglas Lamont, head of the UK beverage brand Innocent Drinks (now part of Coca-Cola), recently told a roomful of fellow executives at B Corps’ annual European summit: “We are the first generation of leaders who cannot say we didn’t know [about the climate emergency] … and we are also the last generation who can do anything about it.”

The growing demand for a fairer, more caring form of capitalism has also given rise to a related phenomenon: the emergence of the purpose-driven consultant.

Over recent years, a cottage industry of advisory firms has sprung up, all promising to help companies on this “journey” (a favourite phrase) towards a more purposeful, less profit-centric model of business.

In the spirit of business-as-unusual, their approach is refreshingly unorthodox. “Bold”, “heartfelt” and “emotionally involved” are among the defining characteristics that sustainability expert Ed Gillespie associates with this new breed of consultant.

To get the ball rolling, for example, conventional companies may well need a dose of shock therapy, according to Gillespie, who styles himself as an “insultant”: “Sometimes this will involve making clients feel very uncomfortable and might even lead to losing pitches, which most consultants are too chicken to do.”

Another hallmark of these challenger consultants is their focus on the motivations and mindsets of individual decision makers. Alter how executives think and changes in business strategy and values will follow, the logic goes.

David Rosenberg is one such proponent of this more personal approach. An associate at the advisory firm Better Future (also a certified B Corp), he is involved in taking corporate executives on “learning journeys” to overseas locations that lie “outside their comfort zone”. Past examples include home stays for cocoa-sector execs with smallholder farmers in Africa, and for bankers with their microfinance customers.

“You confront them with challenges rooted in observable realities, [which] gives them fresh perspectives on their impacts in the world and presents opportunities for positive change,” says Rosenberg.

For now, the companies and consultants pushing to reset capitalism occupy the fringes of the business mainstream. This is not surprising: attachments to shareholder capitalism and the pursuit for profit run deep. But change is in the air. And it’s this cohort of dissenters and disruptors who are pointing the way.

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