The Untapped Power of Big Business

I would like to recommend a book that I thought presented a compelling argument against the “us vs. them” attitude so many conscious students of this world tend to fall into.

While big business is without a doubt the source of countless problems in this broken world, people also tend to forget the amount of potential and power big business has to elicit change for the better. Jon Miller and Lucy Parker remind us in ‘Everybody’s Business‘ that “sending an email, feeding our families, charging our mobile phones, traveling, taking medication, paying a bill, having a shower, watching a movie, enjoying a beer” are all examples of what an intrinsic role big business plays in everybody’s lives, whether we like it or not.

As Lucy and Jon described in an interview, “when you think about it, there isn’t a single big problem in the world today that big business can’t help find solutions to, whether that’s global water security, fighting poverty, energy efficiency, the future of health care, or women’s empowerment. These are all issues that businesses are tackling today.”

So what would motivate businesses to put resources and effort into more sustainable business solutions? Jon clarifies using the example of water usage:

“First, they must have license from society to operate, and they know they don’t operate in a vacuum. And second, they create important opportunities for long-term growth when they invest in local needs. And it’s not just PepsiCo. There are businesses working on cheap water purification technology and solar-powered desalination plants. Even the banks are getting involved. HSBC has launched a $100 million program with World Wildlife Fund and other partners to tackle water risk, and Standard Chartered has committed $1 billion of financial services to water-related projects.”

True sustainable development means social and environmental development initiatives must go hand in hand with financial viability in order for initiatives to continue on their own without constant competition for financial support from governments, not-for-profits and donors.

That being said, it is important to remember that at the end of the day, big businesses are essentially profit-driven, and unless social and environmental values are core to the business strategy, they will probably be axed by leadership if they are seen as a "nice to have" vehicle for greenwashing. If they are seen as a "nice to have" and the values don't come from within the company leadership, they are only able to invest in meaningful initiatives if that kind of product/service and business culture is demanded by the consumer. This means the responsibility is also on us as consumers to demand more sustainable products and to also being willing to pay a little more for those services if need be. It is also good to keep in mind that some industries are inherently unsustainable by nature, regardless of how extensive their Corporate Responsibility initiatives may be. A fossil fuel company with a great social programme helping educate underprivileged youths is still extracting a finite source that contributes massively to global warming and environmental devastation. That type of social investment is like putting a band-aid on a cancer. Therefore I’d like at this point to put in a word of caution that not all corporate responsibility is good corporate responsibility, and that it can sometimes be used to distract from the real issues.

‘Everybody’s Business’ draws on examples of how big businesses such as Coca Cola, IBM and Nike have turned their companies into pioneers of social, environmental and ethical responsibility in the business world. “Corporate responsibility” didn’t even exist as a term until Nike responded to accusations of being complicit in poor and often fatal working conditions of factory workers in Asia in the 80s. While infamous NGO Environmental Defense League once shouted “sue the bastards” in the 60s in front of the doors of skyscrapers, they now sit in boardrooms and effect real change through cooperation with big businesses. Some may call it “selling out”, but close cooperation between NGOs and business can lead to a much more effective way of harnessing the power of big business to drive social and environmental change.

So I think while big business still has a way to go in normalising and fine-tuning the art of sustainable business solutions, ‘everybody’s business’ is a reminder that Corporations are run by people, and most people have good intentions for the world and their impact on it. A sustainable economy will involve big business regardless; it is just up to ‘us’ as conscious consumers and ‘them’ as leaders in business to accept nothing less than a truly sustainable economy, society and future.

– Anna