Simon Farrell, co-founder of business purpose consultancy Today the Arena and programme lead at Everyone’s Edinburgh Business for Good makes the case for fostering the kind of businesses our children would be proud of.
Like many senior leaders in business, I grew up under Thatcher. The ideological thread of ‘profit is progress’ permeated my education and early grounding in business. The mantra was ‘profit is good and more is better’. We all want to be successful in life, to stretch ourselves and direct our talents and skills towards a goal. For me, profit was that goal. I was told to follow the money and I was judged on how well I achieved it. I suspect a whole generation of leaders were taught as I was taught and the pure pursuit of profit became a means of self-actualisation. But a growing wave of innovators and entrepreneurs are channelling their drive towards meeting the challenges facing humanity and our planet. We need the Scottish Government to enable these leaders so that the future engines of our economy are the kinds of enterprises our children will be proud of.
Over the years I learned how to support big corporations on their drive to make big sums of money. I co-owned a branding and marketing agency that was recognised as one of the best in the UK; winning top awards for both effectiveness and creativity. I was proud of my company, of what we achieved and the way we treated our 55 employees. But over time, I grew jaded.
According to the dominant way of valuing business, we were a roaring success. We produced good financial results for our clients and good financial results for ourselves. But I became increasingly worried that some of the companies whose growth we were enabling were not making the most positive contribution to society or nature. Far from it.
Having children made me much more aware of the world I’m likely to leave behind. Eventually, I sold my share of the agency I co-owned. A colleague and I set up a new company, Today the Arena, to support businesses who want to become the purpose driven businesses of the future. Learning about Scotland’s growing “B Corps” movement gave me faith that things could be different. B Corps are businesses who are committed to contributing to inclusive, equitable and regenerative economies. To achieve certification, they must meet high standards of performance, accountability, and transparency on factors like employee benefits, input materials and supply chain practices.
Scotland’s commitment to become a Wellbeing Economy gave me faith that this is just the start of a bigger transformation. A Wellbeing Economy is one that is designed to deliver what we all need to live good lives on a healthy planet, rather than prioritising economic growth for its own sake. In this type of economy, institutions and incentives would ensure that the right thing to do for people and planet became the right thing to do for business.
Pockets of innovation are already springing up all around us. Businesses are adopting new practices like creating purpose-driven brands, moving to a four-day working week and even transitioning to alternative models like employee ownership.
Our clients include everyone from huge multinational corporations who are trying to use their influence to change customer’s behaviour to smaller companies, like ARRAN Sense of Scotland (formerly Arran Aromatics), who are using their purpose to create a positive impact on the wellbeing of their communities.
I’m also part of Everyone’s Edinburgh – a space for people to collaborate with each other to help accelerate Edinburgh’s journey to becoming a more sustainable and fairer place to live and work. As part of this we created a new programme called Business for Good which offers free masterclasses, clinics, toolkits and courses to help businesses in Edinburgh become more purpose. I should become a valuable resource for fellow business leaders looking to follow a path grounded in purpose and wellbeing rather than profit and blind growth.
Our norms are changing. People increasingly see a successful business as one that provides customers with products and services that look after their ongoing wellbeing. One that treats employees well and enhances communities. And this translates to how we see the wider purpose of our economy.
We all know that our economy meets the needs of very few of us and is driving environmental degradation. We need an economic system that makes it easier to do the right thing.
The idea of a Universal Basic Income excites me. If governments ensured we all had enough money coming in to live a decent life it would free people up to spend their time contributing to their communities in ways that don’t necessarily attract an income just now. Doing the kind of purpose driven work I’ve moved into relies so much on people’s good will, and it can be hard balancing this with being a dad and the realities of needing an income. If people were able to spend less of their lives earning money in jobs that don’t give them meaning simply to get by, they could spend more of their lives creating and living in a world that means a great deal more to them.
The recent National Strategy for Economic Transformation sets out the aspiration for Scotland to become a Wellbeing Economy. But to achieve this, the Scottish Government must have a robust plan to reorient our economy and ensure that the right thing to do for people and planet becomes the right thing to do for business.
This article was originally published in The Scotsman.