What’s the point of businesses? Maybe, job making? On the face of it, creating jobs – assuming half decent conditions and fair pay – is a good thing. How about ‘wealth’ creation? But, again, what is that for? A good life, wealth for oneself, one’s family and future generations maybe.
I think, through business, that we can earn a good living but also that businesses should help to create a better world and fairer society through their activities. Captains - usually male - of industry may bash their fists on their walnut inlaid board-room tables and fume that business is about making money and that only charities do good but I think it vital that businesses, as a hugely important part of our society, have a duty to contribute more to it.
When I founded my business, eight years ago, I never wanted to be one of those business owners who bluster and whine about red tape. Also, I definitely did not want to be one of those people who you regularly see moaning about any attempt to give workers, society or the environment a break. Other than the occasional phone-slamming fury at HMRC’s lack of assistance I think I’ve stuck pretty much to those principles. Another thing I try not to be is cynical. I want to be optimistic, trusting even. My friends think I’m an idealist.
Business is a profound force in the world. Businesses do create jobs and profits. Taxes on these profits – not those squirrelled away in private offshore tax havens – fund our hospitals, schools and public services. Owners gain wealth. This wealth is supposed to trickle down to benefit us all. ‘Trickle’ says it all. If it was a ‘cascade’ or a ‘gush-down’ we might feel less angry about corporate greed. Trickle down is defunct and morally bankrupt as a concept. Wealth ossifies at the top. Rich get richer, poor stay poor. Both sides of the political spectrum say they recognise this. The Conservatives say they want to build a fairer Britain that works for everyone. Labour talks about the many not the few.
A key question is: at what cost is that wealth made? We have seen countless scandals based on profiteering that is often criminal – financial mis-selling, horse meat in burgers, fake breast implants, Paradise Papers, Panama Papers, siphoning off pension funds. And huge damage done to people, the environment and animals in the name of profit and, by association, business.
Attempts to address business behaviour are met with scepticism from one side and complaints of over regulatory bureaucracy on the other. Corporate and social responsibility is dismissed as ‘greenwash’. Even ‘purpose’ – that latest buzzword – can be viewed cynically without proper certification, governance and action.
So how might a business contribute more, whilst still doing the day job? I think that contributing more leads to doing the day job better, more productively and ultimately more profitably. Doing good is also good business.
Business could start by paying the real living wage. Costs will increase in the short-term but long-term stability and productivity can be increased. Businesses could improve work-place well-being. A happy, healthy workforce will be more productive. Businesses could offer flexible working – encouraging family friendly working patterns. They could spend more in their supply chains locally and socially rather than at the cheapest rate. They could minimise any gender pay gap. They could adopt a diversity confident approach to employment. National government could even incentivise these behaviours with tax breaks.
Business is a powerful force but pursuit of profit alone can be damaging. Examples of egregious executive behaviour abound. But so do instances of businesses doing better – Richer Sounds, John Lewis and Riverford have all shown what can be done with innovative ownership and pay structures; B&Q and Marks and Spencer with supply chains.
We cannot wait for the government - paralysed by Brexit and lobbied to death by corporate interests - to act. We need to take action and the power ourselves - our great businesses can go further. And this, in a way, is the true purpose of business: to give people the agency to create a better world.
We all want to get on: get a good job, feel like our life has meaning. Earn a good living and make the world a better place. Let’s put this into the heart of our businesses too.