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The importance of being an environmentally and socially conscious business

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This is because the distance between businesses and the people who have a stake in them, such as consumers, is shrinking through our increasingly social and digital world.

It’s not easy for a business to ask itself that most fundamental question – what’s our purpose? For a significant amount of time the answer is to make money. Increasingly, however, that is viewed as not enough by customers and businesses alike.

Corporate responsibility as a discipline has grown due to questions revolving around the value and purpose of businesses. It started as a defensive mechanism to ward off the threat of compulsion and legislation potentially detrimental to business practice by government, or outcry from consumers, customers, suppliers or employees. No surprise then that it has developed most in areas where a business can show how it is minimising the negative impact of its work – on the environment, suppliers, even on public health. It’s where M&S’s Plan A struck home so successfully when it launched, and where others have been very quick to follow.

B2C businesses have long championed values as part of their brand profile and overall marketing message, but there seems to be a growing trend of going beyond having a broadly defined set of values that primarily relate to how you conduct business. A number of businesses are, shock horror, expressing opinions on social and environmental issues. Take, for example, Neal’s Yard and Co-Op with their recent campaigns on bees. 

But they are being joined by many new businesses, particularly start-ups, who see social purpose as a fundamental aspect of what they do and why they exist. Where Jamie Oliver has led, others are following, not least the founders of Leon, the fast-growing natural fast food chain, who are now shadowing Jamie Oliver by looking to improve the healthiness of school meals. 

Trendwatching.com recently highlighted the rise of businesses who put pressure on their own customers to be more environmentally and socially conscious. They cited a sushi restaurant in Japan that fines customers if they do not finish their meals and donates the money to a fund to support fishermen, with the menu pointing out the dangerous conditions they work in.

Bigger businesses are looking for the protection and opportunity offered by more meaningful partnerships with charities and NGOs. They are looking beyond the traditional fundraising relationship and working with their partners to create positive behaviour change, using their channels and influence to reach out to consumers. But those partnerships aren’t limited to big businesses. Many SMEs are collaborating with charities, creating mutually beneficial relationships that aren’t simply about raising money. 

We are likely to see more diverse partnerships between businesses and charities of all sizes and types over the next few years, and many of them may well bring together some surprising bedfellows. It is not an easy thing to get right, and the consequences of getting it wrong can be serious for all involved. 

Peter Gilheany is Director of Forster Communications

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