Big business can drive social change

I always wanted to be a politician. One of those special few who had the privilege of running the country and trying to make society work just that little bit better. What could be a better calling in life?

Looking back, I realise what a hopeless pipe dream that was. Watching Peter Dutton tell CEOs to “stick to their knitting” and stay out of the marriage equality debate, reinforced for me what a critical role business must play in shaping humanity’s experience and impact.

There’s a Ted Talk that was given by Jason Clay, Vice president of the WWF in 2010. In it, Clay gives the frightening statistic that a cat in Europe has a bigger ecological footprint than a person in sub-Saharan Africa. We all know we need to consume less. Eat less. Use less. Buy local. Decrease over-production. Don’t use child labour and buy more sustainable and renewable goods. We all know the pace of growth and consumption of humanity far outstrips the resources of the planet.

There simply isn’t enough to go around.

And as someone who spends a lot of time thinking about how I can live a better, less impactful life and leave something-half decent behind for my kids to inherit, you’d think I would be mindful of everything I buy. I’ve lived in a shack on the beach in the Caribbean with nothing more than an internet connection and three pieces of cutlery and never been happier.

The problem is, as a comfortable (read: spoilt) western DINK with a high disposable income, who can waltz down to the nearest Westfield and buy whatever I want, I am too conditioned to let autopilot take control of my unbridled consumption. In most instances, I’m making decisions in less than two seconds, hardly giving myself time to read the label let alone weigh up the social impact credentials of two competing brands.

As any behavioural economist will tell you, humans cannot be trusted to make the best decisions for themselves or their tribes. As individuals, our own behaviour and perspective can only take us so far.

Enter, the corporate world. Industry needs to embrace, and therefore push, a culture of less consumption. Jason Clay, and the WWF have the right idea. Rather than engage with individuals to save biodiversity, they are going directly to the big corporations. Asking them to work together and making companies agree on green initiatives so that sustainability is a pre-competitive issue.

Those in the C-suite of the corporate sector, like those of us in the advertising industry, are in a powerful position to influence significant social change. Business needs to find ways to make their activities sustainable. Corporations must work together and agree on what outcomes they want for the world and humanity, so that sustainability, social cohesion and mankind’s wellbeing are above competition.

Business must find new metrics to gauge success and utilise its powerful influence to create a brighter future for our children. This doesn’t need to just come from a benevolent standpoint. Technology has led to transparency, and in turn businesses are realising that the cost of not doing the right thing can be higher than doing things.

A recent global survey found that two-thirds of consumers agree that businesses actually bear as much responsibility as governments for driving positive social change. The rates are even higher for Australian consumers, where 84% of Australian mainstream consumers believe corporations and governments should work together to make the world a better place.

So, while Dutton may think the responsibility for the future of humanity lies in the hands of Government, I believe history will prove him wrong. Far from sticking to its knitting, industry needs to embrace and push social change because if they don’t, then it’s unclear who will. It’s the corporate world who has the imperative, the will and the long-term focus to secure our future wellbeing. 

Photograph: Lucy Helliwell

Article posted by Hannah Muirhead