Our 2020 question, can business make society better? Was discussed and debated in twelve different conversations as part of a COVID inspired podcast series replacing our annual real-life conversation. As is synonymous with One Question, the twelve-part series sought opinions from different individuals and industries, from a young, female, black barrister to a politician, a director and a restaurant owner, inviting listeners to step out of their everyday bubble and immerse themselves in diverse answers to a single question.
The answer? A resounding “yes, but…”
What do we mean by better?
Is it the responsibility of business to make society better?
If we expect the industry to take responsibility for a better society are we in danger of breaking a democratic system we fought so hard for?
What is the incentive for business to take any responsibility for a better society without regulation?
How does this responsibility manifest itself every day?
We asked this question during a global health crisis, a civil rights movement, a US election and Brexit. In hindsight, perhaps there was only one question, if not now, when?
Businesses have to take responsibility for society because business is society. From the supply chain to the end-user, businesses have a responsibility to society, be it in line with an ESG framework or an impending regulation, business can no longer operate on a single metric of profitability. Is this purpose? Yes. It is, in my opinion, the only definition of purpose. Purpose is not the nonsense that marketers and ad execs sell and attempt to measure, you can’t measure purpose and if any business is measuring their purpose through a single metric, let alone a financial one, it is misguided.
Last week Basecamp CEO, Jason Fried issued a policy prohibiting all “societal and political discussions.”
“Today’s social and political waters are especially choppy. Sensitivities are at 11, and every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant. You shouldn’t have to wonder if staying out of it means you’re complicit or wading into it means you’re a target. These are difficult enough waters to navigate in life, but significantly more so at work. It’s become too much. It’s a major distraction. It saps our energy and redirects our dialog towards dark places. It’s not healthy, it hasn’t served us well. And we’re done with it on our company Basecamp account where the work happens.”
The backlash was fast and resulted in many employees looking to jump ship, further exacerbated by co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson offering a severance package for any employee who didn’t agree with the new policy. Fried has since issued an apology, but the damage has been done and time will tell how this plays out, the impact on its share price, customers, employees. But the real issue is the belief that these conversations are not the responsibility of business. Navigating these types of conversations is a shared challenge for every CEO, C-suite, board, business and industry. There is no one answer, but shutting down the conversation is not it. Refusing to take responsibility for the role an organisation such as Basecamp plays in politics, or race is nothing short of naive. The tide is changing.
Being comfortable with being uncomfortable, accepting that insecurity is the new normal and acknowledging that responsibility in business today is no longer optional is just the beginning. In the words of Rudolf Bahro, “When an old culture is dying, the new culture is created by those people who are not afraid to be insecure.”
In every one question conversation, there is always a recurring theme, a single thread which ties each conversation together and surfaces our next question. What can a business take responsibility for in 2021? What can society take responsibility for in 2021? A recurring theme in every conversation last year was education.
How do we explain the real impact of fast fashion to a consumer? How do we ensure that equality in society is not a token conversation but intrinsic to society, economically, politically, and culturally? How do we explain political policymaking, the danger of polarisation and the importance of democracy? How do we take more responsibility for our own mental health? How do we teach young girls that control is not necessarily overt sexuality? Why did it take the death of one black man to force the music industry to have conversations they should have been having ten years ago?
To be clear, I by no means believe that the answer to all of society’s ills lies in the education system. It does not. By education I mean information, I mean learning, I mean understanding the difference between fact and truth. I mean conversation, curiosity and collaboration. In 2021 if a business has one responsibility to society, is it education? So in 2021, we ask,
Is education the answer?
Recently, Chris Mason, a BBC journalist, came under criticism during an interview with a voter in Hartlepool who explained his reasoning for voting for conservative party as ‘voting for change’ as “Labour had wrecked it” the voter was blissfully unaware that it was in fact the Conservative party responsible for the issues he listed. Something Chris Mason did not believe was his responsibility to correct.
“My journalistic aim here is not to hold to account; people can vote for whoever they like. It is to understand why people have switched.”
I agree with Chris, it is not his responsibility to hold voters to account or question their reasoning behind each vote but, I question that as a journalist and a BBC journalist it is his responsibility to correct misinformation. If the very definition of journalism is to seek the truth then we must ensure that we are upholding the truth at all times. If the BBC is not responsible for this, then who is? If the BBC is not responsible for educating the British public on political facts, then who is?
If Jason Fried does not believe it is his responsibility or that of his organisation, to educate his staff on cultural or political differences then whose responsibility is it?
So in 2021, we will curate twelve conversations across twelve different industries, asking, is education the answer in fighting the climate crisis? Is education the answer in understanding the importance of democracy and policy? Is education the answer in reducing the increase in inequality? Culminating at our annual member event this Autumn, we will bring each perspective together to discuss, consult and collaborate to create an ecosystem to better understand our responsibility to society? Because I believe taking responsibility today is how we create change. Taking responsibility today is profitability tomorrow.