‘Ethics are increasingly important to business’

Increasingly businesses want to be more ethical, believes Business in the Community marketplace director Charlotte West, who argues that some of its members are prioritising purpose alongside profit

While breathing is essential for life, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would describe the purpose of their life as simply to breathe. In the same way, there is an exciting movement of forward-thinking companies starting to look at profit through this lens – as essential but not the driving purpose of their business.

These purpose-driven brands are questioning and repositioning the focus of their business and putting customer quality of life and the wellbeing of society at large at the heart of what they choose to sell and how they operate.

Let’s be clear: purpose is different from values. Indeed, 80 per cent of FTSE 500 companies have the same set of values, but having purpose goes beyond a hollow set of promises from a company. Instead genuinely purpose-driven brands demonstrate this by developing products that don’t just make money, but make sense for the environment and for people too.

There are examples of companies starting to take this thinking into their products and services. Take Sodexo, a large provider of catering and management services. Working in partnership with the WWF it created Green and Lean, a project that helps people adopt diets that are both healthy and sustainable, by creating a range of lower carbon, lower meat healthy meals, using ethically sourced and certified ingredients, particularly in schools.

Purpose-driven brands go beyond pithy values statements to develop products that don’t just make money but make sense for the environment and people too

Companies often cite a lack of consumer demand for not behaving in this way. But in the same way that Steve Jobs didn’t ask if people wanted an iPhone and Henry Ford didn’t develop a faster horse, profit driven brands often anticipate customer demands. Sodexo didn’t have schools banging at their doors for more environmentally friendly meals but they were able to show leadership in response to the environmental impact of the way we eat. It knew that this was an area the company could do more on and that it would benefit their business, clients and society.

Businesses must build trust with what they do, not what they say they do. Products with purpose help companies demonstrate how they live their values in a meaningful way, leading to experiences that help build trust.

Nationwide Building Society have created a specialist support service for customers with hugely personal challenging circumstances such as cancer. The building society estimates that cancer sufferers are around £500-600 worse off per month, with research by Macmillan Cancer Support suggesting that only two per cent of consumers would approach their bank for help during a personal crisis.

In response, Nationwide worked with Macmillan to set up a research panel to help shape its service to meet the specific needs of individuals facing cancer to ensure they have better, faster access to finance when they most need it.

There’s a long way to go to embed this thinking throughout all companies and ensure that efforts to be more responsible aren’t just token gestures, eclipsed by other harmful impacts. But increasingly businesses are looking for ways to put responsible business practices at the heart of what they do.

Business in the Community is a charity representing a membership of more than 800 businesses, which promotes responsible business practice. Its Responsible Business Week campaign runs from 18-22 April 2016.

Main image: Charlotte West (far right) speaking at an event during Responsible Business Week