BUSINESS IS TAKING A MORE ACTIVE ROLE IN SOCIETY. BUT IS IT ENOUGH?

More businesses than ever are acting to address social and environmental issues, mindful of the wishes of their consumers. But is it enough? Mel Young and Alex Matthews discuss this focus on planet and people alongside profit, whether it comes from a genuine desire to help, and how young people are leading the way.

AM: It’s a cliché now to say that the pandemic has changed how we think, but I think it’s really exciting that more people, particularly young people, are thinking more carefully about how and what they consume. CSR has been around for a long time but over the last year or so there has been much more conversation about how the brands themselves – and not just their marketing departments – behave. Consumers have so much choice now, and they are choosing to buy from brands that share their values – so in order to stay relevant, brands are having to show how they are having a positive impact on society and the environment. We were just talking about the news that Unilever is insisting that all workers in its supply chain – not just its own workers – receive the living wage by 2030. This is an exciting example of a large company taking responsibility for its impact: hopefully others will follow suit.

MY: In our last blog we wrote about how the aspirations of young people were inspiring. They could imagine a way of life which doesn’t damage the planet and extinguishes inequality. But in order to achieve that vision, significant changes need to be made – and now. Unilever has been championing the cause of how businesses behave and in particular global businesses for some years now. This news about how their suppliers must act is very good news because the impact will be quite considerable. 

AM: It really is good news. In capitalist societies, big global corporations like Unilever have huge influence on both governments and individuals, so if they highlight the huge issues we face as a planet and take responsibility for addressing them, there is more chance that others will sit up and listen. Interestingly, Unilver’s CEO Alan Jope noted how the pandemic has worsened inequality and how everyone needs to take action to build better, healthier societies. It seems that they are finally waking up to what social entrepreneurs have known for years

Young people are a serious factor behind this trend. One report found that 62% of young people favour products that show off their political and social beliefs – that’s compared to just 21% of people over the age of 55. These companies know that young people are their future, so the fact that those young people are using their voices and their wallets to force change is really inspiring.

MY: I think young people have been aware of their buying power for some time. Brands are now reacting. They are considering changing their practices both from an ethical point of view but also from a business perspective. You will hear some of them repeat the phrase that “it is better to do business in a good world than in a bad world”. Some of them have been saying that for decades but now they are now beginning to create practical solutions. Unilever is a good example, but there are others thinking in the same way. Some are even asking themselves what business’ role in society is, and concluding that making money for money’s sake is not the answer.

AM: It’s certainly a move in the right direction, but is it enough? The world’s problems are huge – climate change, air and water pollution, inequality, divisiveness…, and urgent action needs to be taken now. It’s great that Unilever is taking responsibility for the wages of its supply chain workers, but what about all the plastic packaging it produces? The chemicals that it uses in creating its products? These are huge problems as well and, unfortunately, you don’t hear much about them being tackled – is it because these problems are too big, too hard to solve? The cynic in me still wonders if the social and environmental measures that these big companies take aren’t still just white- or greenwashing. What do you think?

MY: You’re right to raise these points. The big corporations have been talking about this for a long time and the world has become a worse place for many people. Critics say that is all just talk with no action. There was a lot of discussion at last week’s World Economic Forum Virtual Davos meeting about how the business world had to move from shareholder capitalism to stakeholder capitalism. There was a lot of enthusiasm for the concept. New measurements like ESG (Environment, Social, Governance) were mentioned as ways in which business was held to account. My impression is that the bigger businesses “get it” and want to do something but a huge inter-connected system shift is required. It is like trying to turn a giant tanker round in the ocean. It will take time and there will be a lot of critics, but some real leadership is emerging in the sector which should give cause for some optimism. But it will take a long time!

AM: Ever the optimist! Sadly, time is something that we don’t have – I think the 2020s are the last decade in which we can still prevent climate change, so change has to happen right now! But I agree that we are heading in the right direction; hopefully, if more young people raise their voices and push for change, it will happen. We need to get on and give them a platform to make their voices heard! 

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