Can We Trust Business?
And will 2018 see the ascendency of human brands?
“What are the projects that will replace famine, plague and war at the top of the human agenda in the twenty-first century?”
That is the question Yuval Noah Harari asks in his book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. It is a huge question, and Harari offers suggestions on what those projects might be:
- “To protect humankind and the planet as a whole from the dangers inherent in our own power.”
- “To find the key to happiness.”
(He also describes a third big project that subsumes the other two, but that would take me off topic! So I’ll leave that for you to discover!)
These two humanist ‘projects’ will require a massive shift in consciousness and capital:
- At micro level — individually through our participation in democracy, decisions as consumers, and our ‘inner’ pursuit of happiness.
- At macro level — collectively through our governments and public services, NGO’s, corporates, small-to-medium sized businesses, charities, communities and social networks throughout the world.
For some time I’ve had that sense that we, individually and collectively, have reached a tipping point where irreversible momentum is carrying us forward into a future we are not quite ready for.
In November 2017, former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya spoke about the unintended consequences of the platform he had helped develop. “We have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”
He expanded, “…short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works: no civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth. This is not about Russian ads. This is a global problem. It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other.”
Following criticism from Facebook, Palihapitiya sought to clarify:
“Social media platforms, in particular, have been used and abused in ways that we, their architects, never imagined. Much blame has been thrown and guilt felt, but the important thing is what we as an industry do now to ensure that our impact on society continues to be a positive one.”
The decisions we make over the next few years will be the most critically important, perhaps existential, decisions society will ever make. So who should we entrust to make them?
Can we trust business?
In November, I attended Emerge 2017 which is a conference about driving transformational social change. The programme included a lively, Oxford-style debate around the proposition:
This house believes Business is the best vehicle to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals
There were compelling arguments made by both sides of the debate but, in the end, conference attendees voted against the proposition.
The most powerful statements were made by Gib Bulloch, who convinced the audience that, ultimately, business cannot be trusted because it’s raison d’être is to maximise financial returns to shareholders. Gib’s colleagues went on to describe the need for a fourth sector, that is constitutionally engineered toward ensuring better social outcomes.
Entering the debate, I was convinced I would vote for the proposition but based on the arguments presented; I found myself voting against it.
Contemplating this further, I became quite agitated by the outcome. The conference had brought together some of the brightest minds in academia and industry, and they did not believe in business as the most effective mechanism for sustainable change. That is astonishing.
Business is undoubtedly the most powerful creator of wealth and prosperity. As an entrepreneur, I absolutely believe business can evolve to benefit all (including the fauna and flora we share the planet with), not just a few shareholders. But to do that, we must overcome the most persistent of human fallibilities — greed.
If that wasn’t challenging enough, what of happiness? Can business simultaneously protect us and the planet from our power and make us happy?
A generation awakened
I am convinced Brexit and Trump have shaken an entire generation out of political apathy and complacency. People will more carefully consider the potential consequences of their decisions when they enter the voting booth.
In addition, we are becoming more conscious of the lifestyle choices we make.
The brands we choose as consumers have always been a reflection of who we want to become — it’s part of the process of self-actualisation. But who we want to become is changing.
Brands must now attract people who have a growing social conscience, who make their purchasing decisions based on product or service quality, price, and ethical track record.
Businesses that shape those brands must provide purposeful employment. They need to attract talent by clearly communicating authentic values and a clear vision. They must enable workers with autonomy so that they can make important decisions, and provide the opportunity to see the positive impact of their work through direct engagement with customers.
CEO’s, boards and investors will increasingly be compelled to commit to sustainable brand visions and missions that require compromise on financial returns to help us transition into an evolved form of capitalism.
Unilever owns over 400 brands and its turnover was €52 billion in 2016. Seven out of every ten households around the world contain at least one Unilever product.
I worked with Unilever as a client for over ten years. They were one of the earliest corporates to put sustainability at the core of their vision and mission.
While Unilever has been criticised on a range of issues over the years, it has been on a steady path of transformation. They created the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan which sets outs a vision to grow the business, while decoupling the environmental footprint from growth and increasing positive social impact.
The plan sets out three big goals:
- Help more than a billion people to improve their health and wellbeing.
- Halve the environmental footprint of Unilever products.
- Source 100% of agricultural raw materials sustainably and enhance the livelihoods of people across the value chain.
Unilever is the standard bearer that demonstrates even the largest companies can employ strategic planning processes that work towards a triple bottom line. It’s a shame so few others have thus far failed to follow their lead.
My colleagues Jamie and Johan founded ‘We Are Human’ 7 years ago with an ambition to create and partner with human-centred brands. Kahoot! was designed with the human learning experience central to its vision.
I passionately believe, business can move beyond short-term thinking to work diligently on ideas that will generate sustainable growth and value for all. It just needs ambitious leaders that consistently make values-based decisions.
In a standard Hollywood storyline, there comes the point where the protagonist is faced with seemingly overwhelming challenges or adversaries. Just when it looks like all hope is lost, innate human ingenuity and creativity enable our hero to engineer a fight back and, of course, they ultimately prevail. The good guys beat the bad guys… usually.
As leaders, we need to recognise that the ‘good guy’ and the ‘bad guy’ coexist in all of us. We have a conscience — a moral sense of right and wrong. If we listen intently enough to our inner good guys and take inspired action, we will create more human brands, and business will indeed be instrumental in delivering the big projects at the top of the human agenda.
If you’ve got this far… thank you for reading! I’m only just starting out on Medium. I’ll be writing more about entrepreneurship, pedagogy, nurturing creative talent and enabling high-performance culture, sharing more practical tips and examples from Kahoot! and other organisations.
I would hugely appreciate some claps 👏 and shares 🙌 so that others can find this article!
We Are Human creates purpose driven organisations striving for social and commercial impact. We are mostly known for co-founding and incubating Kahoot!, “the world’s fastest growing learning brand”, launched in August 2013. By May 2017, along with our co-founders and a highly dedicated team, we had scaled Kahoot! to reach 50 million people around the world every month.