As workers and consumers, we can push companies to put ethics first
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The writer is author of ‘The Reset: Ideas to Change How We Work and Live’
How do we redefine the role of companies in society, both as workers and consumers? We often debate this in the meetings and pitch sessions I now attend. A younger cohort of consumers, employees, business founders and leaders are challenging the old norms that put profits before people and the planet.
Workers, in particular, want to know their employers are making serious efforts to operate sustainably. And while price, quality and availability are still the main drivers for consumers, provenance and authenticity are climbing up the list of factors they cite as important. However, trying to discern which companies are good for the planet and people is not always easy. A lack of transparency around corporate social responsibility goals, or labour and supply chains, is still a barrier to workers and consumers trying to make sustainable choices.
Transparency is critical to driving the change the world needs. One way some businesses are doing this is through “B Corp” status, where they commit to a balance between purpose and profit. With the aim of having a positive impact on employees, communities and the environment, it signals to those looking for a job with purpose that a business is meeting the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance and public transparency.
For conscious online shoppers, stores such as Waitrose, the supermarket, have provided a B Corp filter, so consumers can find brands that match with their values. Patagonia, the outdoor clothing brand, Oddbox, the fruit and vegetable delivery service, and Ben & Jerry’s, the ice-cream maker, are just a few of the 4,000-plus companies in more than 70 countries with B Corp status. Research by PwC highlights that B Corps have “arguably fared better when compared to the wider UK economy”, citing 55 per cent of respondents to a B Lab survey who believed being a B Corp had contributed to improving the resilience of their business.
But the B Corp movement has its critics: it relies on self-reporting and is not legally enforceable, so some companies may be guilty of greenwashing. However, it is at least an indication that a company wants to do something good. As climate and sustainability become more pressing, will we allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good? As for consumers, it is vital we feel empowered by having access to better information to make informed choices. Ethical rating apps such as Cogo, a carbon footprint tracking app, are becoming key tools in the march towards greater transparency — it has recently kicked off a $20m Series A funding, with a mission “to empower hundreds of millions of consumers”.
Cogo was founded by Ben Gleisner, an environmentalist from New Zealand, to help consumers purchase from companies that share its values. The choice to add your card details is optional, but if you want the app can connect to your bank account to enable it to see the businesses you purchase from. You can enter which issues you prioritise, such as seeking to buy from businesses that pay their employees the living wage.
Another app helping consumers make better choices is Olio, a London-based food app. Olio connects people to other people or businesses who are looking to offload uneaten food and other household items. With almost 5m users, the start-up has grown rapidly over the past year, and as food waste accounts for as much as 10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN, this is a welcome alternative for many.
As consumer spending drives approximately 60 per cent of global gross domestic product, according to the World Economic Forum, the choices we make matter, and the power of consumption drives change.
Consumers and employees are increasingly making decisions on who to work for or where to buy from based on the positive impact a company is making. Is it too much to imagine a world where all companies compete not only to be the best in the world, but to be the best for the world?
What I know is that choosing where we put our time, talent and money can have a huge impact on our quality of life; it has an impact on the communities we are part of and, critically, on the planet we live on.