Big companies can be a force for good—if they ask the right questions

Transformation of big companies is really important if we want to create a system that is fairer, more sustainable and less unequal.

Lorna Davis: I think that for all of us who are dreaming of, hoping for, and committed to creating a system that is fairer, more sustainable, less unequal, we all ask ourselves the question of: Where do we fit in? What do we actually do? What do I do versus what do other people do? And I think there’s a lot that governments can do and should do and there’s a lot that not-for-profits can and should do. What I’m very interested in is what I know and what we know, which is big corporate life. And what we know is that big corporates are very powerful. They control an enormous number of resources – human and planetary resources. And so the transformation of big companies is a really important part of the puzzle. It’s not the only thing, but it’s a really important part of the puzzle. So I think that the more that big companies take their responsibility seriously to transform, the better off the entire puzzle is going to be. I think one of the questions that people ask all the time is what can I personally do. And I think if you’re an individual one of the questions that you can ask yourself is: if you’re buying something you can ask “Where did this thing come from, and where is it going to?” I think if you’re a normal, sort of smallish size company one of the questions that you can ask yourself is, “Where am I leaving money on the table?” Because basically anything that is a linear process is probably not as financially efficient as it could be if it were a circular process. But I think that the big question that companies, large companies like Danone and other big multinationals can and should ask themselves is “Where can we collaborate? Where can we pre-compete?” Because there’s a place for competition and always will be. That’s why business as a mechanism is powerful. Competition is an important part of that. But there is also a really important time to collaborate. And I think that the journey that we’re on is kind of an exploration of when to collaborate and when to compete. And I think that this is going to be a really sensitive and interesting conversation in the years ahead because collaboration with governments, NGOs, and other big multinationals is going to be really important in some areas—and, by the way, extremely helpful if we can get legislation that evens up the playing field. And then continuing to compete in areas where we can differentiate and innovate is a really important part of why business is a powerful force, and I think the combination of those two things will help business to be the force for good that we dream it to be. One of the things that I think distinguishes B Corp certification from many of the other certifications is that it’s holistic, but it also allows you to double down in areas that you really want to be exceptional in and just be okay in areas that you’re not choosing to double down on basically. And if you take the subject of workers, for example, the question of how much ownership your workers have of your organization, the question of what percentage of your workers are at or above the living wage; The question of what’s the size of the gap between the most well-paid employee and the least well-paid employee in your organization. These are just some of the questions that you need to answer in the B-Impact Assessment. And what’s interesting for me is that simply being asked those questions causes you to ask yourself what kind of company you are and what kind of company you want to be. So I’ll give you an example: We didn’t even measure the living wage. We didn’t even know what the living wage was. It took us months to work out what our numbers were. We just didn’t track them. And so what happens is (a combination of I think three things) is interesting. A combination of the questions that you have to answer causes the leadership of an organization to rethink the kind of company that it wants to be. Secondly, there is a transparency to the whole process that makes it very difficult to pretend to be something that you’re not. So your scores are public, your ratings are public. And anybody can kind of ask the B-Lab, the not-for-profit whatever questions that they have about your organization. So there’s not much chance for you—there’s no chance, really, for you to hide. And I think what’s interesting about these kinds of metrics is it’s not necessarily an individual metric. It’s a combination of metrics and it’s a combination of ways that you deal with your people and the planet really that makes you a good company or less good company. And if you’ve got poor intent a lot of the metrics out there you can kind of duck and dive. But because this is pretty holistic it’s very difficult to do that and because it’s transparent. And I think the third thing that’s been very interesting for us, and I think it’s true for pretty much everybody on this journey is: because purpose is so important to the more junior and the younger employees in all organizations they get empowered to ask questions about these kinds of things in a way that they don’t necessarily in a traditional company. So what I have found very interesting in Danone is how much, because we made the declaration to become a B Corp, it opens up the question of what we’re trying to be, and it allows people to ask questions about the things that are covered in that assessment that I don’t think that would be asked otherwise. So I think it’s a pretty interesting sort of package of things that leads to generally a good outcome.

  • Large companies can and should ask themselves "Where can we collaborate? Where can we pre-compete?"
  • Both collaboration and competition can help big business be the force for good.
  • B Corp certifications can lead to companies being more purposeful and transparent.

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