‘Business shows’ are getting it wrong

As we look to business to do more on responsibility and sustainability, why isn’t this even on the agenda for the big business exhibitions? The author of a new book, The Company Citizen, visits one to find out… (Published on Linked In)

A devotee of sustainable and responsible business, I visited ‘Europe’s Biggest Event for Anyone Starting or Growing a Business’ at London’s Olympia recently. Over two days, more than 300 stalls and 250 talks catered for many thousands of attendees.

What an opportunity for entrepreneurs to learn! The chance to find out how to turn environmental and social responsibilities into business opportunities, build sustainability into business planning and eliminate human rights abuse from supply chains. And were the answers there?

No, far from it. Not even the case for paying the Living Wage or treating employees with respect.

The event’s theme was summed up by a poster: ‘Make More Money’. Almost without exception its stalls were populated by accountants, coaches and tax advisers, digital marketing specialists and professional networkers rubbing shoulders with angel investors and smiling celebrity TV gurus. Caught in a time warp, I was back in the profit-hungry 1980s with a digital edge. No workshop was called ‘How to exploit gullible people’ but one should have been.

One presenter’s ‘smarter ways to get investment’ wisely professed: ‘Don’t ask for more money than you need, don’t bullshit and get a woman on board’. The assumption that the entrepreneur must be male and the explanation for this advice – that flashing eyes and conniving ways could break down barriers to sales – were not what I wanted to hear.

I identified three oases of sanity amongst 300 stalls. Advance London was there, ‘placing London’s small and medium businesses at the forefront of the circular economy’, wisely focusing on the business opportunities presented by zero waste and maximum re-usability throughout the supply chain. Computer Aid offered the money-saving alternative of sending IT equipment to landfill by donating it to developing countries, rightly labelling this ‘social impact’. Meanwhile, the Government Office for Equalities was making the (substantial) case for greater empowerment of women in business.

In talks and workshops another Government agency updated people on immigration and employment law but otherwise the themes were predictable: you, too, can be a millionaire business hero! Talks included ‘From Bedroom to Boardroom’, ‘How to be a Social Media Superstar’ and ‘How to Effortlessly Manifest More Money’, titles picked at random from just one of a dozen ‘theatres’.

No doubt many small and would-be entrepreneurs are motivated by profit. Many, too, are motivated by purpose – bringing something good to the world through a sustainable business model – and these two goals are complementary. Ethical, responsible and sustainable business is a recipe for success even when measured in conventional terms – because innovation with purpose exploits niches, creates new and more efficient solutions and broadens market access.

The case for triple bottom line sustainability wasn’t on the exhibition floor, though it was important to the handful of visitors to whom I spoke. Perhaps their needs will be taken into account next year.

Perhaps.

‘The Business Show’ was at Olympia on 16-17th November. Tom Levitt’s new book is ‘The Company Citizen: Good for Business, Planet, Nation and Community’.

Making an ‘Unreasonable Impact’

I published this article on Linked In in October 2017:

The world faces problems beside which our local issues look like small fare: food, energy and climate to name but three. We’ve always looked to governments working in collaboration to solve them – but where are the ideas that will drive those solutions?

Could we slash the cost of micro-solar power for cooking food and boiling water directly, saving millions in the developing world from the poison of kerosene fumes?

Why don’t we develop a network of dirigibles to act as phone masts, bringing state of the art 4G and 5G communications to every community in the world at a fraction of the cost of the current network?

What’s preventing us from growing healthy food within – and beneath – our cities on a commercial scale, utilising LED lighting and a fraction of the water of conventional agriculture, vastly reducing transport costs?

How about making edible cutlery from biodegradable rice and wheat, massively reducing the mountain of waste plastic, abolishing the transfer of toxins from that plastic into our food?

These are not only brilliant ideas but they’re commercial propositions; if you don’t believe that then ask the entrepreneurs who are putting them into practice, creating the sort of sustainable and inclusive economy that the world needs to survive. Ask the company that’s providing GPS services to allow farmers to optimise their agricultural output and minimise fertiliser use through their mobile phones. Ask the entrepreneur who’s turning industrial waste gases into ethanol. Ask the business that’s manufacturing tasty, high protein chips – from flour made from crickets.

All of the above were amongst 27 companies recently given a platform at the Barclays Unreasonable Impact event, aptly staged at the Royal Institution, the historic home of scientific innovation in London. They were not there to ask for money, though eager impact investors did make up a fair proportion of the audience, and nor were they talking about ideas alone. They were there to tell us about their businesses, companies already employing real people and benefiting, in some cases, millions if not billions of people – especially (but not exclusively) in developing countries.

Unreasonable Impact taught me that innovation, economic inclusion and reducing the cost of doing good are – and must be – part of the purpose of business. In fact, these are all roles that governments (and certainly governments alone) cannot deliver. Every one of the companies we saw – from slashing the price of 3D printing using waste plastic to making the circular economy real through the next generation of recycling – is viable, active and ambitious, motivated by making the world a better place. Scaling impact to create 200 million jobs worldwide suddenly looks possible.

So much about our world is depressing right now: did you know that climate change will halve the world’s supply of coffee in just twenty years? Unreasonable Impact was an optimistic breath of fresh air.

Which reminds me: another of the companies uses innovative technology to bring peerless, accurate, real time, local data on air quality to millions of their subscribers. A breath of fresh air, indeed.