Creating Company Citizens

This article first appeared on the Tomorrow’s Company web site

‘Responsible business’ makes sense: there’s always something to be said for balancing your company’s needs against those of the environment and society in general. Why go against the grain?

This is the theme of my new book, ‘The Company Citizen‘.

For the CFO, there’s the knowledge that businesses which adopt more environmentally sustainable strategies produce more long term profit than those that don’t. The HR director knows that where employees are treated with dignity, and identify themselves with the meaningful mission or purpose of the company, then levels of engagement will be higher – which in turn enhances productivity. The procurement officer knows that legal and other codes of compliance are more readily accorded with when supply chains are open and transparent and the COO knows that ethical sourcing is a major contributor to removing unnecessary risk from their company’s portfolio.

When these four are happy so are the CEO and the Chair, who both know that the more they need to hide the less certain they can be about their future. Customers frequently show their appreciation of the honest, ethical, corruption-free approach by enhancing sales and market share.

Discussing his company’s newly-stated commitment to becoming globally zero carbon within a decade, a CEO recently told me: ‘This isn’t about climate change. It’s about long term thinking.’ How right he was. Putting climate to one side, carbon fuels can only become more rare, more expensive, more politically sensitive and their supply less reliable in the future; the same can’t be said for wind or sunshine, where technology costs are plummeting. A generational view puts the path of your company into perspective, puts budgeting for major projects in context and restores that business goal of years gone by: to leave a better company for the next generation than that which ours inherited.

In 1948 the United Nations came of age. It met in New York to discuss human rights, migration and other themes still redolent 70 years later. Today, if we brought together the 100 biggest economies of the world and charged them with resolving hunger, poverty and global warming only 58 would be countries – the rest would be companies. That shift in global power, recognised by the UN in the way it constructed its 2015 Sustainable Development Goals, suggests that combining global purposes with traditional business concepts of success is essential for our species’ survival; success must be tempered by a new level of responsibility. No longer confined to the optional extra of CSR, that responsibility could almost be described as epitomising the values of ‘company citizenship’.

Profit’s not a dirty word but it shouldn’t be the exclusive purpose of business. A true company citizen not only serves the market and the owners in a traditional way but pays tax willingly, with pride. The company citizen recognises that a business is a community in which employees, customers, investors and others have stakes which need to be in balance with each other. A good citizen’s a good neighbour, a community player and a friend to the environment 365 days a year, aware of both the positive and negative impacts that they have on others, seeking to accentuate the former whilst eliminating the latter.

The good news is that more and more businesses are finding ways to sustain themselves whilst maintaining the highest standards of ethics and probity, not least through the ‘new economies’ known as social, inclusive and circular. Business is increasingly looking to the longer term to reduce those negative impacts, especially on the environment.

When the day comes that it’s normal for companies to pay bonuses on the basis of carbon footprint reduction; boast in the media that they’ve eliminated slavery from their supply chain; go out of their way to limit top pay; take employees readily onto their boards; and abandon quarterly reporting, then we’ll know that we’re on the way to creating a society which includes company citizens and creates value for all.

Tom Levitt’s new book ‘The Company Citizen: Good for Business, Planet, Nation and Community’ is available now from Routledge.

The Progressive Company Citizen

This article first appeared on the web site of the Centre for Progressive Capitalism and then, in a revised version, for the NewCo Shift site in America.

The idea that business can be at the heart of an inclusive society, driven on the path towards social progress by a dynamic market, without undue exploitation, maximising shared economic and social benefits, must be central to any definition of progressive capitalism. It’s the theme of my new book, ‘The Company Citizen’.

Progressive thinkers in this field largely agree what is meant by a ‘responsible company’, ‘triple bottom line sustainability’ and ‘ethical behaviour’; debates on ‘purpose’ and ‘mission’ rage, largely positively. Thankfully, too, the circular and inclusive economies are becoming established in mainstream thinking; witness the non-exploitative fashion industry built on zero waste, low energy usage and maximum re-use of fabrics envisaged just last month by Ellen MacArthur and Stella McCartney.

Why is it so important that the gauntlet for good is picked up by mainstream business? There are three priorities:

  • Practice what you preach
  • Look to the long term
  • Make it mainstream.

You don’t have to look far to find a company committed to social and environmental responsibility: the automobile industry is actively moving away from petrol and diesel, even tobacco and energy companies are turning from their traditional wares – whilst the American business backlash to Trump, both in banning Muslim migrants and quitting the Paris agreement, was profound. Every company with any clout should ask itself, or be asked: do you practice what you preach? Trading ethically, without corruption, exploitation or falsification is a start, so too is paying fair taxes.

Having set environmental goals, do you reward senior management for achieving progress towards them or pay their bonuses in the traditional way, on merely financial criteria?

Do your internal pay policies help eradicate excessive inequalities? Do you pay the objectively calculated Living Wage? Or are you happy to have the taxpayer subsidise your lowest-paid workers?

Do people know what your company’s mission, its purpose, actually is? Is it more than just making money and maximising profit? Or is it something that your employees and stakeholders can all ‘get behind’?

Do you know what your impact on the community and environment really is? Do you measure only the positive social value that your company generates, in the same partial and misleading way that GDP assesses countries, or do you acknowledge that a balance sheet approach, in which you aim to contribute a net positive social value, is the way forward?

A company CEO said to me, on the day that his company pledged to reach global zero net carbon within seven years, ‘This isn’t about climate change; it’s about long term thinking’. Today company shares are traded in seconds by computers and companies generally report to shareholders quarterly. Whatever happened to the generational perspective at the heart of family-owned companies? Long term thinking helps with horizon-scanning, risk management, budget planning – and calms the blood pressure. Of course each day brings challenges, but if business generally adopted a longer term perspective than so many firms exhibit today then many of our current resource challenges would be less ominous and threatening.

The ‘mainstreaming’ argument is crucial. Traditionally, ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ has been optional, an add-on, a superficial box-ticking exercise measuring inputs – the number of volunteering hours the company donates to charity. Progressive companies no longer use that worn out acronym of ‘CSR’ and have moved on from its associated image of lycra, litter-picks and cake stalls. The idea of business as a force for good only makes sense if it’s embedded, which means making it both sustainable and sensible – from a traditional business perspective.

Fortunately, it can be so. It’s now well established that the following company formats are more profitable in the long term than those of comparable companies which don’t exhibit each trait:

  • Companies committed to long term environmental sustainability and reporting
  • Companies which include a degree of employee ownership in their governance model
  • Companies whose mission and sense of purpose, beyond profit alone, motivate high levels of employee and stakeholder engagement.

This is just as well. Of the world’s 100 largest economies almost half are companies and not countries. Business influences every community and environment yet still today too much of this influence is negative. In the same way as it’s said ‘you’re never more than a few yards from a rat’, you’re always close to a product made from slave or child labour, or manufactured by workers living in poverty or in unsafe workplaces, adopters of wasteful energy and other practices or unsustainable resource acquisition.

It’s easy (and too often fair) to dismiss business as the root of all of such problems. The fact is, as the UN recognised in setting its 2015 Sustainable Development Goals, we literally will not survive unless business becomes even more of a force for good than it is today.

The Company Citizen: Good for Business, Planet, Nation and Community’ by Tom Levitt is available now from Routledge.

‘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.


‘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.