Profit and Social Change Can Co-exist

One of the most damaging misconceptions is that profit and social change are at odds with each other. One of the cornerstones of sustainability is profitability. Long-term survival requires the generation of profit. It is simple economics. It is how you go about achieving profit, and what you do with the profit that determines where on the scale you sit.

Having worked in Southern Africa, USA and the UK, across a multitude of industries, I have come to the realization that the most effective way to change the way we consume (responsible consumerism) is to change the way we produce. Sure, most of us as consumers have every intention of consuming responsibly, but intention is different from reality. Several years ago, having become disillusioned with consumerism, I dropped everything to live a sustainable life growing and selling market veg and soft fruit. My customers were full of verbal good will and good intentions, but their actions spoke a different story. It was far more convenient for them to get everything from the supermarket, apart from the odd pint of milk and fresh strawberries. Ethics, sustainable sourcing and local support were easily looked over in favour of convenience and price. As an individual, working on a small scale, I was not making a blind bit of difference.

It was a good lesson to learn and allowed me to realize the great consumer movement was not going to happen. The root of changing consumer behaviour is to take a deep and fresh look at the way we produce and through harnessing and applying the best practices of market forces.

The stumbling block to creating responsible production seemed to stem from shareholder expectations. Large organizations exist to serve their shareholders who are in turn motivated by profit. However, if we accept that profit in itself is not wrong, this becomes an opportunity rather than a stumbling block. The route to responsible production lies in demonstrating to shareholders that responsible production is good for business, great for profits and the most sustainable path for their future prosperity.

The good news is organizations are starting to listen. This is partly because it is a conversation they can understand, filled with potential versus adversity, and partly because, understanding the challenges, smart people are working with purpose and coming up with innovative and disruptive ways to make this happen.

For example, technology and new ways of thinking are allowing the reduction of waste conversation to be aligned with the increased efficiencies conversation. Outsourcing specialised services allow more nimble and proactive business models and open data is allowing us to, in near real time, assess processes, analyse huge amounts of data and discover new possibilities we could never dream of just 5 years ago.

It is still difficult for some organizations who cut their teeth on a model of secrecy and a steep vertical management structure to adjust to a more open, collaborative and partnership mentality. If we are to have any hope for the future, we have to open up our data where it makes sense to do so, encourage the small start up with the new approaches and drive innovation from purpose, not greed. But most of all we need to prove to shareholders everywhere that there is a better way of doing business. The reality is, the burden of proof lies with us, in which case, we had better get to work.