There is no shortage of the words “ethics”, “social” or “impact” in the narrative of multinational business – but are we seeing these principles in practice, and how far have they gotten us?

Many people, both inside and outside of these businesses, strive daily to find out. The most brilliant intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs I know never tire of this quest for clarity around whether the core of a business proposition is, in fact, ethical. And if it was last year, does that mean it still is today?

Unfortunately, two key challenges are in the way of their ardent investigations. The first: there is no clear, globally accepted tracking system for “good” business practice that is acknowledged far-and-wide -- yet. Compounding this is the lack of clarity on whether a business is “ethical enough” as compared to the wider social and environmental challenges. Are our efforts even making a mark, compared to the scale of the problems we face?

We are making progress, but the evidence is clear that this progress is not nearly enough to curb off a two-degree global warming limit or address the deep social injustices highlighted with the Millennium Development Goals. Our collective human response is to dig deeper – crafting more convoluted metrics, and mixing up the end-goals with short-term incremental success, rather than thinking more widely about the root causes with a longer time horizon than ever before.

Two initiatives are bright lights on the horizon. Co-founder of the FutureFit Business Benchmark, Geoff Kendall, has articulated that business performance on some of these key issues is usually assessed relative to a random baseline year (reduced water use 50% since 1990), relative to short-term targets (reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20% in the next 5 years), or relative to peers.

Patagonia funds start-up companies with common values

The FutureFit Business Benchmark is a bold response to this trend, trying to redefine progress as relative to key social and environmental challenges by grounding it in best-available natural and social science. “How much is enough” to get us where we need to go? This kind of thinking may just get us to a fair representation of the impact of our practices, in real terms, not just marketing jargon.

The global B Corporation movement is also one to watch. A B Corp certification requires businesses to undergo a rigorous assessment process, independently validated by the independent, non-profit B Lab. Importantly, it seeks to not only certify that internal practices are ethical, but that the core business is mission-led, with a responsibility to its wider stakeholders. This could become a standard for the assessment of businesses, at scale – and the time is now to support a united global community for responsible, ethical and mission-driven businesses.

The second challenge is highly related to the first: sometimes, to make the business even more ethical than it ever thought it could be, the answers do not exist (yet) inside. Especially for multinational corporates, an entire process of innovation is required to find answers to the most pressing problems, around supply chains and distribution networks, and they must meet internal thresholds for scale. If that’s not possible, venturing units are increasingly tasked with finding entrepreneurial solutions to profoundly ethical challenges from outside the business.

As we heard businesses talk about the importance of social and environmental action, we embarked on a mission to find out how they were investing in these ideas: where are they investing money and resources to find the necessary solutions? Increasingly, when the answers are not found within, companies are using investment vehicles and wider venturing partnerships with entrepreneurs to solve difficult challenges.

In a recent research report - Investing in Breakthrough: Corporate Venture Capital - we provide a landscape of areas where corporate venturing units are increasingly aligning with this mission, and in some cases, developing specific funds with an impact focus. For example, Patagonia’s $20 Million and Change fund was created to support start-up companies that express the core values of quality, environmentalism, corporate transparency and “not being bound by convention” that Patagonia holds dear. They have clear terms of investment to ensure companies meet this criteria: including a preference that they are B Corps.

These exciting trends and initiatives are coming together in 2015 not because of serendipity – but because the time is now to ensure we are actually making progress on societal challenges at a business, industry and system level. This will come from acknowledging areas of continued weakness and building momentum around the game-changing innovations and strategies that are keeping the next generation front of mind.


Amanda Feldman is director, impact & innovation, at the think-tank and advisory firm, Volans

comment  entrepreneurs  innovation  intrapreneurs 

Responsible Business Summit Europe 2015

May 2015, London, United Kingdom

Europe’s leading meeting place for corporate leaders delivering sustainable business. 12+ C-Suite and over 300 attendees will address some of the key issues and opportunities, including: sustainable innovation, collaboration, and resource efficiency and brand strategies

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