Mike Barry is board trustee at A Blueprint for Better Business. He was formerly the architect of Marks and Spencer’s Plan A sustainability strategy.
The #Covid19 crisis has shown starkly the urgent need for a better form of capitalism, one that works for citizen, community, society, planet and shareholder alike.
Whilst putting out today’s fires we also need to think about what comes next, how do we #BuildBackBetter?
Whilst many companies are still in a fight for survival a number are now saying ‘we get the premise of ‘better’ but how in PRACTICE do we do it’? So here is a basic road map to ‘better’ business framed around three questions:
1. WHY do I need to be ‘better’?
2. WHAT do I need to change to be ‘better’?
3. HOW do I make ‘better’ my way of working across all that I do?
Most companies that have been down this track over the last decade have run straight to the ‘WHAT’ question. What’s my science based target? What social due diligence should I do in global supply chains? What target do I need to commit to reduce energy use, water use, plastic use…..etc? And that was fine when social and environmental issues were perceived as peripheral to business strategy and day to day Boardroom discussions. Repetitional issues to be managed on the edge of a business fighting to win in a globalised economy.
But no business can meet the new expectations of citizens (and how they consume); policy makers; and investors with this tepid approach in the future. You will have to be ‘better’ in all that you do, all of the time, not just for the narrow benefit of those who participate in your self-defined value chain but also much more broadly for society and the environment in general.
So the ‘WHY’ and ‘HOW’ question become existential if you are to prove, transparently that you are truly ‘better’ in a questioning world. ‘WHY’ puts social and environmental issues at the beating heart of your purpose, mission, strategy and customer proposition. And ‘HOW’ makes the Boardroom’s vision reality become day-to-day reality in all that you do, all of the time.
So here are 9 brief points on the ‘WHY’, ‘WHAT’ and ‘HOW’ (Noting there could be 99 but these are the key ones to start with!)
WHY (are you doing sustainability)?
Be clear about your Purpose – there’s quite an industry in generating purpose, mission and values for corporates. Most feel generic, derivative management speak. The best ones align with a company’s heritage. Listen deeply to their customers and employees. Ask them to ‘shrink’ your company down to one word (at M&S it was ‘quality’ so Plan A added a new emotional dimension to quality beyond the functional). Look at Blueprint for Better Business (http://www.blueprintforbusiness.org/): the B-Corp movement (https://bcorporation.uk/certification); and Julian Richer’s Good Business Charter (https://goodbusinesscharter.com/about-us/) for ‘road maps’ to follow to make purpose real.
Be on the right side of marketplace disruption – understand the rapid shifts (coal to wind/solar; ICE to EV; meat to plant/lab based https://www.rethinkx.com/; throwaway to circular fashion) that are bringing ‘better’ products and services to customers. Don’t think ‘disruption is for everyone else, not me’. Every product will in the next decade be redefined through the sustainability lens.
Be a consistently bold and brave leader – the CEO and Board need to lead personally, internally and externally, championing their vision to be ‘better’ all of the time, not just having a foreword ghost written in the annual report.
WHAT (are you committing to do)?
Set clear bold Goals to be ‘better’. Articulate what your social and environmental footprint is and what you will do, not just to reduce it but to create net benefit too. Not just environmental but, too often forgotten, social (tax, lobbying, privacy, zero hour contracts, mental health etc) targets that are time bound and measurable.
Hold yourself to account – Create a CEO led governance system assigning clear accountability for delivery and supported by accurate, regular, granular management information on performance
Be transparent about how you perform - Report openly and honestly about your performance (Global Reporting Initiative - https://www.globalreporting.org/Pages/default.aspx). Look outwards and wherever possible use external benchmarks to baseline yourself e.g. (World Benchmarking Alliance - https://www.worldbenchmarkingalliance.org/; Corporate Human Rights Benchmark - https://www.corporatebenchmark.org/)
HOW (are you integrating sustainability into all that you do)?
Engage your employees – be good for them in how you reward, develop and recognize their efforts. If ‘better’ is all that you want to do, it needs to be all that they do too. Make it easy for them to get involved. Know what’s expected of them. Listen to their ideas, they will often be superior to yours! Train them in ‘better’ business for example through the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) (https://www.cisl.cam.ac.uk/)
Engage your suppliers – know who they are, where they are, what they do. Yes set standards for them and measure their performance in exactly the same way you measure your ow. But focus on unleashing their creativity, their ideas and their commitment to build ‘better’ together rather than treating it as a matter of compliance.
Be active participants in Partnerships for change – The economy is too big to change alone. You have to get off your own stoop and go and find platforms to drive change together whether on a national scale (Business in the Community - https://www.bitc.org.uk/) globally (BSR - https://www.bsr.org/en); WBCSD - https://www.wbcsd.org/); by sector (Imagine Fashion Pact - https://imagine.one/); Consumer Goods Forum - https://www.theconsumergoodsforum.com/initiatives/environmental-sustainability/); British Retail Consortium - https://brc.org.uk/making-a-difference/priorities/better-retail-better-world; National Farmers Union - https://www.nfuonline.com/news/latest-news/achieving-net-zero-meeting-the-climate-change-challenge/) or by issue (WRAP Plastic Pact - https://www.wrap.org.uk/content/the-uk-plastics-pact)
And in total engage your customers. They have to know you care. That you are committed to them, their family, their community, their society and their planet through all you do. Through your products, the service you offer, your physical presence in their neighbourhood, your contribution to the public good. Your entire suite of communications (brand, product, social etc) need to be tested for their ability to communicate what makes you ‘better’ in an open and transparent way.
These 9 steps to ‘better’ business are not meant to be definitive but rather offer a broad ‘route map’ to those many companies who want to do things very differently from today and be useful, relevant and better for the society they serve and the planet they depend upon.