From little shops to global conglomerates, they are present in every corner of the earth. Companies create opportunities, influence choices, manage resources and how they operate, has a real and lasting effect on our future. Which is why, it is so important to have an annual day to engage private enterprises in a positive way, to encourage them to make a difference in whatever they do. Just imagine, if the world’s companies were to come together to seriously work to overcome global challenges, many would be easily resolved. If only we can get every company to see the benefits of integrating a meaningful purpose and profit, then we can probably avoid some of the human tragedies as seen in recent times.
At the same time, there are companies who are already doing a lot of good in the world on a daily basis. These companies do not see that making a difference have to be limited to initiatives of corporate social responsibility. They see their enterprises as constant change agents in order to shape a better world. Some obvious examples are, Elon Musk who is building Tesla to get the world to see the viability of electric cars and Google’s role in providing free access to the internet in the far-flung corners of our world.
Will the world be better without private companies?
There are some who strongly believe that companies are incapable of doing good and that profit will ultimately trump that desire. These critics, prefer to paint companies as doing the devil’s bidding. Unfortunately, with numerous scandals such as the reckless speculation of the financial sector which triggered the global crisis of 2008 to the abuse of garment workers in Dhaka, this seems to be the reality. A number of movies and documentaries, leveraging on the hatred of multinational firms, have also encouraged sustained public dissatisfaction about the disproportionate influence of companies in our modern world. But in doing so, it limits the possibilities of collaboration to bring about sustainable change.
If some of the more extreme voices were to have their way, which is to end the role of private enterprises, the world would be poorer, not richer. Communist ideology tried to achieve this by replacing the role of private enterprise through another form of wealth distribution and development but it failed. China’s amazing feat of lifting 300 million people from extreme poverty in the last three decades is in large part, due to the freedom of allowing people to create private enterprises and welcoming foreign firms to create opportunities. Therefore, a more sustainable solution is not to engage companies only when they make mistakes but to proactively inspire them to do good so as to create a more sustainable future for profit and growth. Sir Richard Branson, affirmed this through an interview with Thought Economies, “Increasingly we are hearing more about how big business needs to play its role in society for the greater good. We all have a role to play and it makes business sense. In fact, consumers demand that business be responsible.”
Companies are now seen as the core agents of sustainable development
From the 20th century, there emerged a movement of thinkers and leaders who proposed that companies be seen as key agents for sustainable development instead of been viewed as a mere partner or even an obstacle. The World Economic Forum (WEF) chaired by Professor Klaus Schwab, is an annual gathering of influential leaders from academics, non-profits, businesses and governments working to improve the state of the world. The WEF was designed based on his concept of Stakeholder Theory – that companies serve not only shareholders but all the stakeholders of their organization. This means all the social groups connected directly or indirectly to the enterprise which are dependent on its success and prosperity, including not just shareholders and creditors but also employees, customers, suppliers, the state and the society in which the enterprise is active. The WEF initiative which has now grown into an influential platform and it demonstrates what private enterprises in partnership with others can do to bring about greater good.
From major faith traditions, such as Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, numerous ideas have emerged about how businesses can be inspired by their faith to bring about common good. Chiara Lubich, an influential Catholic Leader in the 20th century, even founded a business model called the economy of communion in 1991. Launched in Brazil, it aims to nurture a new generation of companies following the example of the first Christian community in Jerusalem where “no one among them was in need”. The model places the human person at the center and aims to help those in need through their businesses. This approach has since been adopted by 750 small and medium enterprises in different parts of the world regardless of religious affiliation. The concept, though still in its infancy in terms of scale, has been seriously considered at various UN and EU forums. It was highlighted by Pope Benedict XVI in his papal encyclical Deus Caritas Est, “The Economy of Communion offers a practical demonstration that it is possible to give without losing and take without taking away”.
At the turn of the 21st century, the richest man in the world, Bill Gates decided to start a foundation which would deploy all his entrepreneurial skills and talent to making the world a better place. People then thought it was a publicity stunt but Bill Gates and his wife Melinda just went ahead. Who would have imagined that a man, who was so often demonized by the media and the public as the evil monopolist, was now going to make an even greater difference. Bill and his wife Melinda brought something different to the development sector led largely by NGOs and governments which is: effectiveness. From lowering costs of vaccines to funding cure for forgotten diseases that were unprofitable for pharmaceutical companies, the Gates foundation is blazing new trails. This is another affirmation of what can happen when businesses are inspired to reflect deeply about their potential to do good and then go on to do it.
The Global Campaign for a World Company Day (WCD)
The concept of having an annual day to inspire companies to think deeper about how they can bring about greater good through daily work seems like common sense. Therefore, it was surprising for us to learn that while there are numerous world days for a variety of causes such as toilets to groups like cooperatives, there is currently none for the largest group of all, companies. Two weeks ago, in the presence of 150 civil and business leaders in Ho Chi Minh City, we decided to take action and launch a global campaign to ask the United Nations to declare 15th August as World Company Day. Through the various Shape the World Conferences where we have engaged over 4,000 business leaders in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, we will go around the region to invite thousands of companies to pledge online, that they will use all of their resources and talent to shape a better world. With the large number of online pledges, we hope that very soon the United Nations will declare 15th August as the annual day to recognise and inspire companies to shape a better world.
When you log on to the campaign’s website at www.worldcompanyday.org, you will find the following purpose and goals:
Raising consciousness about the role companies play in shaping a better world and enhancing collaboration to bring about greater good.
To build a global movement of companies committed to shaping a better world that are committed to enhancing fraternity and creating meaningful and sustainable solutions.
We call on the world’s companies to:
- Build a more collaborative and meaningful culture in our companies
- Treat customers and suppliers as partners in shaping a better world
- Create products and services that will add meaningful value to society
As the nature of the campaign is advocacy, we have asked signatories to use the WCD logo as a sign of their support for the initiative. Additionally, in a concrete way, we have also asked companies to reflect on the goals and review their company policies, culture and product development to see where they can further improve. We will also be collecting stories from companies big and small about how they have been working daily to make a difference in the lives of co-workers, customers and the community around them. It will be a place for other business leaders to be inspired to do the same.
This campaign is not meant to be a silver bullet to solve the world’s problems but the beginning of a discussion to seek a more sustainable role for all enterprises. Condemning and demonizing companies is not a sustainable solution but providing viable alternatives of doing business that is also making a difference is. On the day when we launched the concept, someone came up to us saying that this concept will be good for Vietnamese companies. It is good because it provokes them to think about their role and their place in society to serve the greater good. It is really strange why no one has thought about this earlier. We agree but nothing is ever too late. Companies should not be seen as faceless entities; within themselves, they are micro-communities of persons who are capable of fraternity, creativity and they desire the same goodness that everyone seeks. This is what a World Company Day is meant to inspire, just like what the term ‘company’ implies, that we are all on a shared journey and we need each other to secure the best solutions for our future.
Lawrence Chong is the CEO of Consulus, a company specialising in helping Asian firms rebrand and redesign their organizations to be more innovative through business design. Consulus has begun operations in Sri Lanka in partnership with Hummingbird International. Shiraz Latiff is the CEO/Lead Consultant of Hummingbird International, a regional knowledge house specialising in coaching, consulting & outsourcing through global partnerships & collaborations.
This article is part of a weekly column called Shaping the World where Lawrence and Shiraz share insights and ideas about building innovative Asian Brands. It is published by one of the leading dailies in Sri Lanka, Ceylon Today.