Our 10-year anniversary has given me cause to reflect more so than usual. To me, the world seems to have become much less transparent and harder to negotiate. What you see might not be what you actually get, e.g. fake news, greenwashing/purpose washing, uncorroborated rumours on social media etc. In light of this, ‘authenticity’ has become the new buzz word in all walks of life, including the business world.
Many businesses are all striving to differentiate themselves through talking about being ‘purpose driven’ and authentic to their values. But what evidence is provided that they really are doing business differently? Or is it just a thin veneer or ‘wrapping paper’?
“With so many jumping on the bandwagon in the social value world, it’s getting harder and harder to differentiate.”
The argument is often made that if more businesses are aiming to be more impactful then this is inherently good. However, if this is not backed up with action then it can lead to cynicism, particularly when it’s obvious that the evidence points in a different direction. One thing is clear, the current status quo is not working so we need to get more radical and less image conscious.
This is why you need to get under the wrapping to get to the heart; what is the real motivation? We need to ask questions, such as:
- Is there any proof of impact and purpose claims or is it just a cynical ploy and tick-box exercise used as part of a marketing strategy?
- Who has overall responsibility?
- Is it part of the organisation’s governance?
With so many jumping on the bandwagon in the social value world, it’s getting harder and harder to differentiate. I would argue that at the core/heart of this is whether the company is mission driven or shareholder driven, as by definition, shareholder primacy always puts the financial gains over other considerations.
“Profit is a desirable by-product and allows for the creation of greater social value; it is not an end in itself, it is a means to an end. Social value is at the heart, not just a convenient marketing wrapper.”
Despite public and business perception, shareholder primacy is not enshrined in law in the UK and there is some flexibility, which is why we are part of the How do Companies Act campaign.
But this is not the case in the USA. The rise of the B Corps in some North American states helped to challenge this assumption by providing a new alternative legal structure facilitating deviation from the domination of shareholder financial gain. Outside the USA, the B Corp model has helped to indicate that a business can sometimes change its governance to promote business as a force for good, but this is only a small step change in the right direction. It’s important to remember that B Corp status is not the same as social enterprise.
I would recommend listening to the below recent podcast from our US colleague Eric Lombardi, who set up the USA’s biggest zero waste social enterprise, where he talks about how we can change the face of business. He explains so well his thoughts regarding turning current thinking on its head to address huge environmental waste challenges, not only in the US but worldwide. He explains how social enterprise presents a unique way forwards over and above B Corp.
We need to be more radical, as even B Corp status does not address the fact that shareholder value is still a central tenet. This is fundamentally different from businesses that put the act of solving an environmental and or social problem at the heart and why they were established in the first place.
This is why the restriction of shareholder profit and asset lock in social enterprises is so important. Profit is a desirable by-product and allows for the creation of greater social value; it is not an end in itself, it is a means to an end. Social value is at the heart, not just a convenient marketing wrapper.
is social value at the heart?