Making the Headlines: The evolution of the conscious company

Why what matters to society is no longer matter of fact for business.

Last year, through the dogged and determined eyes of American football quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Nike encouraged us to “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything”.

On face value it was a refreshing, rallying cry to follow its iconic ‘Just Do It’ slogan—which for 30 years had galvanised the kind of consumer and social movement that would elevate it to super brand status.

But, while the Nike ‘swooshhas become culturally synonymous with style, performance, athleticism, and all the other values Nike would have us believe about its brand image, this global campaign was more than just an ad.

By putting Kaepernick at the centre – noted for his controversial decision to kneel during the US national anthem before football games in protest against racial injustice and police brutality – Nike was sending a bold statement about its own position on the issue.

The explosive and immediate reaction saw celebrities, activists and even the President of the United States weigh in with commentary and opinion divided by solidarity or scepticism. After all, this was a social justice position from a brand that has publicly battled injustices of its own, linked to serious issues such as factory conditions, child labour and gender discrimination.

Despite the ensuing social media call for a boycott of the brand, this daring platform for Nike to assert its values paid off. The business later reported that the campaign had boosted its online traffic and engagement, leading to significant sales growth.

Beyond business activism

But this example of “business activism” heralds so much more than a symbol of tokenism to drive reputational value. It coincides with an unprecedented time of uncertainty that is changing the mainstream discourse on the role businesses should play in combating some of our biggest societal and environmental challenges.

A resurgence in companies seeking to take a position and align their profits with principle speaks for itself. The growing #MeToo movement, Deliveroo training riders in first-aid, the proliferation of weight behind the war on plastic or Thomas Cook axing trips to SeaWorld over animal welfare concerns, for example. We even saw an entire nation take a position last year when Iceland introduced measures to make paying men more than women illegal.

Corporate responsibility has gone mainstream

This reawakening from brands and companies is perhaps less one of coincidence and more one of a direct response to the growing demand and expectation from the public for more responsible and purpose-led business practice.

The truth is that, today, people increasingly align themselves with businesses that represent their own identity and values—and purpose has become powerful currency in the plight to secure trust, advocacy and loyalty. There is a growing trend of people willing to stop using a product or service if they disagree with a company’s response to an issue.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that we’ve never cared about each other; about our rights, about equality, or about our planet. But, seeing as millennials get blamed for everything, let’s start with them.

Among those polled in Deloitte’s Millennial Survey 2018, 40 per cent said the goal of any business should be to improve society. This becomes all the more significant when you consider that, by 2020, millennials will make up 40 per cent of all consumers and will influence more than $40 billion in annual sales.

And, as the conversation shifts from millennials to the increasingly influential Generation Z, the emphasis for businesses will be on the values wants and needs of the future—the current sentiment of which doesn’t suggest that improving society and the world will be any less important.

It’s not just the expectant public that needs to be considered, though. Responsible business is now firmly on the radar of investor communities, with socially responsible investors increasingly interested in environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors.

Last month, in an open letter, a group of investors representing nearly £5 trillion in assets demanded more transparency and commitment to cutting emissions from food chains including Domino’s and McDonald’s—requesting that the restaurants publish plans to tackle the environmental risks posed by their suppliers by March 2019, to ensure a sustainable supply chain.

Furthermore, a recent interim report by the Environmental Audit Committee found that JD Sports, Sports Direct, TK Maxx, Amazon, Boohoo and Missguided were all retailers called out for being the “least engaged” with promoting environmental sustainability and worker protection.

None had signed up to targets to reduce their carbon, water and waste footprints, none were using organic cotton, and none are currently signed up to the Living Wage Initiative. This type of business scrutiny looks set to become the new normal.

More encouragingly, the appetite from businesses to instil positive change more broadly is exceeding compliance. Nearly 10,000 companies from 160 countries are currently members of the UN Global Compact—an initiative launched to align businesses’ strategy with social benefit, and to support the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

We’re also seeing a growing number of influential movements aligned with business impact; communities of leaders and people committed to accelerating a global culture in redefining success in business in order to build a more inclusive and sustainable economy and be a force for good.

B Corp is a great example; a range of businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency and accountability, to balance profit and purpose. Originating in the US, the community of B Corps certified in the UK launched at the end of September 2015, with 62 founding businesses consisting of the likes of Abel & Cole, Café Direct, Innocent and REBEL Kitchen.

As for 2019, expect to see more transparency and disclosure on responsible business practice, and a continued emphasis on values-led action, driven by authenticity and cultural reference—and, of course, powered by purpose

I’d love to hear your thoughts on what role you think responsible business is or will be playing within your organisation in 2019 and beyond. Failing that, just say hello anyway; [email protected].