Even before it began, 2020 was always going to be a watershed year. Countless organisations published “2020 Visions”, but of course no one could have predicted the year that was. Through Covid-19, the Black Lives Matter Movement and an increasing urgency around climate change the world has collectively experienced tragedy, fear and uncertainty.
Despite these enormous challenges, we believe that the events of 2020 have propelled individuals, businesses and world leaders to think deeply about their role in the world and how they can help others. That’s why, despite all odds, we believe that 2020 has been a turning point for the role of business in society. It’s no longer enough to just be accountable to shareholders, the time has come for business to be accountable for their role in the world.
We aren’t alone in this view.
Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, has called for a “Great Reset” of our economies, politics, and societies. “This is a moment to re-evaluate the sacred cows of the pre-pandemic system, but also to defend certain long-held values. The task we face is to preserve the accomplishments of the past 75 years in a more sustainable form,” he has written.
Ursula von der Leyden, president of the European Commission, has said that the EU should “build back better”, and put aside €672bn to help re-build economies focusing on green and digital transitions, and becoming more sustainable and resilient. The UK government revealed £12bn to fund a “green industrial revolution”.
Several business groups are also lobbying for a purposeful re-building. A coalition of business leaders including the CEOs of 14 companies called Leaders On Purpose including Danone, L’Oreal and Mastercard, wrote an open letter to governments asking them to recognise purpose-first businesses as a “fourth sector”, and that the moment of re-building is the perfect time to embed and encourage purposeful business.
One might argue that businesses have bigger things to worry about now – like their continued existence. Many businesses have gone bust, or are holding on thanks to government loans and support schemes. Almost 8,000 UK high-street businesses closed in the first half of 2020, up 115 percent on the previous year. Large, system-critical businesses in sectors such as banking and the air-freight industry are also suffering. The top 10 tourism destinations are predicted to lose up to $1.9 trillion in travel spend in 2020. In such circumstances, some might propose that cost-cutting is the sensible thing to do.
But what if the sensible move isn’t to go inward but to look outward? In our view, businesses can’t afford not to invest in purpose beyond profit, but more critically this is the moment of greatest opportunity to make the move.
Change is happening on three levels.
First, the global level. There’s the promising aforementioned financial commitments of the UK and the EU to “build back better”.
And in the US, after a year of turmoil and tribal politics, it appears that the new Biden administration will be more focused on the needs of working people. For example, the US’s $7 trillion covid recovery fund will not only be spent on new technologies and industries, but Biden stressed that he wants to target the middle-class, and “make sure workers are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve”.
Biden has already said that the US will re-join the Paris climate agreement and that he will hold a climate summit within 100 days of becoming president. He promised to “listen to and engage closely with the activists, including young people, who have continued to sound the alarm and demand change from those in power”. China, the UK and the EU also said that they will reduce emissions even faster than planned, adopting new, lower 2030 targets.
Second, the business level.
There are signs that business leaders will step up their efforts to embed purpose, too. In a compelling article Hubert Joly, former CEO of Best Buy, an American electronics retailer, and Carlson, a business travel group, wrote that “purposeful, human leadership — such as putting people and customers first, treating profit as an outcome rather than the goal” is the best strategy for businesses to survive this crisis and one he says CEOs are embracing.
Many businesses have stepped up. Dior and Burberry halted clothing production to produce PPE instead. Rolls Royce and Dyson answered the call to produce life-saving ventilators while Zoom offered free access to schoolchildren. Publicity stunts? It’s easy to be cynical, but if these initiatives do good, does it matter?
Businesses with a strong sense purpose have found that their missions help them chart a course in troubling moments. “When the shit hits the fan – whether it is Covid or social injustice – we look to our purpose to figure out what to do,” said Intel CEO Bob Swan.
Bcorps have found 2020 perfectly suited to their purpose-driven ethos. Brad Jacobs, CEO of XPO Logistics says that the pandemic “actually brought a purpose to our drivers, warehouse workers, people on a cross-dock… They suddenly had a big purpose in getting people’s toilet paper delivered, getting Purell [hand sanitizer] delivered, getting medicines delivered.” Employee satisfaction figures went up five percent, he added.
Several businesses are also treating this moment as an opportunity to get serious about climate change. Lead on Climate 2020 is a coalition of 300 businesses including Nike and IKEA which is lobbying the US Congress to “strive to build back better, by planning for a more resilient economy” and insisting that lawmakers “should protect against future shocks and systemic threats – including those associated with climate change.” Indeed according to a new report from KPMG, 81% of CEOs say managing environmental, social and governance factors will be critical to driving growth in the long term.
The Build Better Challenge is bringing together innovators, experts and organisations from around the world to create actionable strategies which will be presented to the G20 and United Nations General Assembly.
Third, the personal level. Many people around the world have suffered the sudden death of a loved one, often in extremely distressing circumstances and many others have been ill, or experienced people close to them suffering. Redundancies reached a record high of 370,000 in the three months to October 2020 (ONS). Even those who did not suffer badly lived through lockdown, a strange time when much of the economy, schools and public transport shut down and social life stopped overnight. In short, life as we know it stopped. This was stressful, of course, but for many it was a chance to pause and consider the direction of their lives.
Harvard psychologist Dr Susan David has said that the experience of quarantine has the potential to trigger life changes. When they step off the treadmill and reflect, people often “recognise aspects of their life that they once thought were significant, like what they were wearing and what they were buying, that are now actually kind of petty”.
Many of us have also reevaluated what work means to us. It is well known that Generation Z, those born between 1995 and 2012, say that they value purposeful work. A Deloitte study said: “If given the choice of accepting a better-paying but boring job versus work that was more interesting but didn’t pay as well, Gen Z was fairly evenly split over the choice.” This contrasts with older generations, who tend to be more money-driven.
A study showed that two-thirds of Gen Z say that they see their job as a key part of their personality, and that they prefer to work for values-driven organisations.
It is not only Gen Z who demand more from work. Working parents have also long organised their lives around the expectation that work is inflexible. Remote working has shown employees — and managers — that flexible working is possible. Employers now have workers from all generations — not just Gen Z — pushing for work that aligns better with their life-goals. Lockdown gave us the opportunity to think about what the purpose of their work is, and also gave them a glimpse of a possible, radically different, future.
Interestingly, some of the most talked-about books of 2020 have also dealt, in their own ways, with aspects of purpose. Rutger Bregman’s Humankind was a tour de force which argued against the idea that humans are fundamentally selfish, showing that altruism and ethics have always driven behaviour. Reimagining Capitalism by Rebecca Henderson argues that capitalism can be reformed to meet the needs of people, not just corporations. And A Citizen’s Guide To Climate Success by Mark Jaccard shows what individuals can really do to combat climate change. Of course, David Attenborough’s documentary A Life on Our Planet vividly brought home the reality of climate change into our living-rooms. Strikingly, all of these offered not just gloom, but solutions.
Two other themes of 2020 could also affect the world in subtle but radical ways. The Black Lives Matter movement has brought questions of systemic injustice into the mainstream.
The pandemic will be time-limited, but prejudice is stubbornly persistent. Racism is something that exists at the personal level, and therefore companies can do something about it. Many organisations have initiated unconscious bias training.
On a strategic level, some businesses have aligned themselves with the protest against racist police violence. Nike was an early mover on this, using American football player Colin Kaepernick in an advertising campaign in 2018 after he began “taking a knee” during the national anthem at games and promptly became unemployable. A short-lived backlash ensued, but the company now looks to have been ahead of the game.
The 2020 BLM movement compelled many companies, from Amazon to Apple, to Uber to take a public stand against racism. The momentum hasn’t slowed down, and in 2021 asset managers are putting pressure on companies to disclose information about racial diversity. Katie Koch, an MD at Goldman Sachs, spoke at a conference in September saying “we are going to spend a lot of the next proxy season getting better demographic disclosure so we can hold companies accountable.” In October Procter & Gamble, the consumer goods group, faced a shareholder resolution calling for diversity disclosure, and Morgan Stanley said they expect a sustained focus on diversity at US corporates for the foreseeable future.
Finally, 2020 has given us the inspiring spectacle of businesses and governments from all continents collaborating to develop vaccines at incredible speed. As well as giving a glimpse of mind-blowing technology and ingenuity, this was a real-time demonstration of just how a clear, pressing purpose can inspire and motivate people.
Far from being a setback to purposeful business, this is a time when, for many reasons and on numerous levels, change feels possible. Now is one of those moments when the future is made, and those of us who envisage a better world should act to make it a reality. Let’s grasp the challenge, and ensure that the struggles of 2020 were not in vain.