The power of business to do good

The world’s business leaders are meeting in Davos this week for their annual get-together.  It is, as ever, a high profile event, reported on extensively […]

The world’s business leaders are meeting in Davos this week for their annual get-together.  It is, as ever, a high profile event, reported on extensively through media outlets from the Times of India to Time magazine, and the BBC to The Australian.

These chief executives and chairmen will undoubtedly agree that they, as responsible capitalists, are committed to making the world a better place, and will stand side-by-side in photocalls with politicians, NGO heads, celebrities and religious leaders, who will say they believe them.   And people will look on from the side, questioning their intentions, having ulterior motives, and arguing that nothing will change.  And they may be right in some cases.

However, the reality is that these business men (and they are still overwhelmingly male; although it’s growing, the proportion of female delegates at Davos will be under 20%) may be the best chance we have of tackling the seemingly intractable social, environmental and economic issues facing us as a planet and a human race.

We want a co-ordinated, international approach to big global issues?  Who is better placed to address these, multinational businesses or national governments?

We want the world’s consumers (and the number of ‘relevant’ consumers is likely to rise from 500 million today to two and a half billion in the next decade) to adopt greener consumption habits?  Big businesses are the only ones who have a track record of being able to change consumer behaviour, so they’ve got the tools to change our habits for the better.

We want the media to pay attention to increased flooding in Asia or famine in Africa or forced labour in Latin America?  Governmental organisations and NGOs have been talking about these issues for years without any real media cut-through in Europe and North America.  Big companies can take these issues and make them a cause that matters for their staff, their customers, their investors.

Who is more likely to invest in long-term solutions?  Businesses that have been around for decades if not centuries, or governments caught up in the near constant electioneering of four or five year terms?

The big multinationals are the gateway to millions of smaller supplier businesses, tens of millions of employees, billions of consumers. They reach and influence our media and politicians. Even the bankers listen to them.  And they are a manageable group.  They can all get together in one place, as they are this week.

We have to give them a chance. So what if some of it is ego-driven?  It’s not as if those other gatherings – European Union summits, World Trade Organisation negotiations or Climate Change summits – have covered themselves in glory.  It’s time to give the business leaders a chance.

The most effective pressure groups – who above all want change – recognised this some time ago, as Chris Rose, the former programme director for Greenpeace UK, points out in his excellent book, ‘What Makes People Tick?’: ‘..governments were no longer leading, they were starting to follow business.  Our old strategies of hitting governments through media were paying diminishing returns. We were good at spotting these things – Greenpeace started shifting its campaigns to focus on corporate power long before it became standard practice among other NGOs.’

Businesses need regulating – by governments, by media, by investors, by pressure groups, by us as consumers – and there are too many examples of short-termism, selfishness and greed in the business world to suggest they be given a free run at it.  But they do occupy (yes, Occupy) a unique position in the world to effect real change for good.