WHAT is it to be ‘woke’ in business? Woke seems to be the new term for ‘political correctness’. Both have origins in things noble that have become distorted and are now somewhat pejorative phrases.
I took political correctness to mean: don’t be deliberately or gratuitously, for example, racist, chauvinist or misogynist. Being aware of diversity, politics, inequality and related issues now makes you woke. This has been hijacked by some who lament the supposed loss of their right to offend and hurl woke as an insult.
Yes, sometimes, people can be overly earnest or po-faced but we don’t have to accept dodgy banter. It seems to me important and possible to care for people, to be polite and to have common decency without restricting freedom of speech or ending fun.
What has this to do with business, the economy our workplaces and capitalism? Last year over 180 of the leaders of the world’s largest businesses signed a declaration scrapping the ‘shareholder-first’ ideology of the last 40 years. These US leaders have committed their companies to benefiting all stakeholders, customers, employers, suppliers, communities and shareholders. It is a significant shift from their previous position of the primacy of making money just for shareholders.
Does that make these businesses woke? Or, are you, like me, wary of greenwash but cautiously optimistic? Words are easy, it is company actions that matter; voluntary pledges will not stop poor practice, profiteering and environmental damage.
Pledges like this can and do matter. Concepts and bold statements can be used in future to hold these companies to account. Every time one of these businesses does something that contradicts these ideals they can be exposed. Expensive PR will not Teflon-coat egregious business practices for long.
Some hailed the declaration as ground-breaking. Others deemed it cynical marketing. Some, on the right, have railed against anything that smacks of regulation and even inclusivity in business. I’ve yet to see such a negative opinion in Britain but no doubt will see this wokeness as a threat to their business.
Is this a deep re-alignment of capitalism? Is business the new frontier of woke? Do these concepts invade the heart of neo-liberal capitalist structures and send tremors across the boardroom tables?
In my experience – mostly in small to medium sized companies – business leaders get the need for a healthy, creative, curious, diverse and prosperous workforce. Many see that doing good is also good for their bottom line. If businesses pay better, treat workers more fairly, have diverse boards and reduce their environmental impact they will see long-term benefits of enhanced productivity and profitability. But there will be a short-term cost increase. And there’s the rub.
So why is there, in some corners, a backlash against wokeness in business? Do people fear a creeping influence of the state – that this is regulation by a side door, that their freedom to decide how to run their businesses will be eroded?
Fundamentally this is a business choice. No-one is forcing businesses to be kinder. Yes, there are legal obligations, quite rightly, around pay, rights and environmental protection. I think businesses should have regard for their impact on people and planet. Government can play a strong role in incentivising or nudging better behaviours but can also name and shame companies that pollute and degrade.
The world would be better off if businesses were more woke. Awake to discrimination. Alert to pollution. Conscious of inclusion. Aren’t we brought up to be polite and considerate as citizens? Why should we let businesses – a large collection of individuals – be any different? Businesses are not distinct from people or planet but they are legal entities. Personas. Therefore, they should act with the decency of people too. The wrapper and protection of corporate status should not be a smokescreen for terrible behaviour: it should and could be a platform for making the world a better place.
How might we account for wokeness? This is a real challenge. Unlike financial statements with their clear and usually unambiguous – although check Enron and the rest – figures in black and white, accounting for social and environmental impact is harder and more subjective. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Let’s encourage woke business. Promote an economy that is good for people and planet. Boost companies that act for wellbeing first. This way we can avoid cynicism and greenwash. Back more ethical forms of business, like social enterprises, co-operatives and community businesses. These are redoubts against the tide of negativity. They help to build a fairer economy. By default, by design.
The article appeared in the Western Morning News on 13/3/2020