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Me in The Independent on banks and how they can help start-ups like they did with me 20 years ago
I imagine like most people when they first meet John Elkington, I was a bit awe-struck when we had lunch about a year back. After all, this is the man who created the term the Triple Bottom Line (TBL) that was to become the mantra of responsible capitalism based on businesses assessing their impact on three measures: people, profit, planet.
Unless businesses addressed the environmental decay we are witnessing worldwide, he argued some 25 years ago, as a core commercial driver sustainability would never be achieved.
Thousands of businesses have adopted this way of thinking and indeed, it is woven into the project plan I have written for what I hope will be my next commercial venture.
So I was intrigued when a mutual friend told me the other day that John had issued a “product recall” on the idea. Manufacturers, he says in an article for the Harvard Business Review, have to do this when a fault is detected – the quicker the better. Management ideas, he argues, never do the same.
The reasoning behind the recall from what I’ve understood is that whilst TBL has become the principle by which many businesses are now driven, the world’s environmental problems continue to rocket at a far bigger scale than the number of corporations stepping up to reverse this.
Whilst large scale multinationals may not have picked up the ball with TBL action quite as rapidly as many of us would have liked, the enabling tools at macro scale are increasingly being made available. From the UN Sustainable Development Goals to the head of the world’s biggest private equity firm saying that businesses without social impact at its core would in time become extinct, John has a point: why are more firms not doing more?
For small and medium sized businesses, it’s different; we can commit and change very quickly. Not only can an owner/founder act on their concerns wider than profit as conventionally defined, we are already doing so, as I reported on recently. Indeed, even at “The Queen’s Bank” Coutts there was an event this week which I was invited to full of SMEs either sharing their social impacts and sense of purpose or enquiring on how to build them. Times are certainly changing on that latter dial – one lady in the audience said that when she started her business 20 years ago her sole purpose was to pay her mortgage.
Today that approach seems incredibly out-dated.
But I imagine John’s concern is two-fold: firstly, that too many large corporations still think that way and secondly, those with a broader perspective aren’t delivering sufficiently for us to yet herald the age of a new, responsible capitalism.
An article by me in The Independent today http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/indyventure/corporate-social-responsibility-iqbal-wahhab-peak-b-charity-business-a8559336.html
An article I’ve written for the International Business Times http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/uk-businesses-must-mentor-youth-realise-their-potential-fill-19bn-gdp-gap-1644637
A couple of years ago at Roast when our chefs took direct ownership of my previous relationship with The Clink restaurant in Brixton Prison, they cranked up our level of engagement by offering inmates day release opportunities to come and see what it’s like working in our kitchen. I was thrilled to hear from our head chef Stuart that one of the prisoners became such a solid backbone of support through our really hectic Christmas period that his colleagues voted him “chef of the year”. The gentleman in question subsequently came to work with us full time when he finished his sentence.
The much vaunted talk of getting prisons to engage with employers so that we can bring people into our workforces to enable them to see there is a life away from crime needs this crucial tool. A report published yesterday by The Prison Reform Trust about this process in Brixton shows just how invaluable it is. A project I chair called Bounce Back has its main base there where prisoners are trained in painting, decorating, scaffolding and dry lining and construction companies line up to offer work opportunities to them.
That all sounds great but Brixton, like every other London prison, has stopped letting prisoners out for day release work opportunities. I’m sure the governors have valid reasons for doing so – it must be a big labour drain for officers to accompany inmates when they come and return from work experiences – but irrespective, we must find ways of encouraging the process to be overturned.
When I met with the Justice Secretary Liz Truss a few months back, I gave her a suggestion which she was seemingly taken with. But not for the first time, I put up a proposal to government which was well received but shelved because an election was subsequently called. Whoever the next Justice Secretary is I hope I have the chance of putting it up again. The idea came to me from a TV series a few years back following one of London’s most run down schools which a trouble shooting headmaster was recruited in to turn around. Pupils went from burning cars and taking drugs and the school became an exemplar model of what proper leadership can achieve and how easily sometimes it can be too.
Every kid at the school was asked by him: “What university are we going to be preparing you for?” Instantly they had the shackles on their aspirations removed and the conversation transformed them.
Prison governors could take that inspirational experience and apply to their inmates. They could ask every new person entering their prison: “What job are we going to prepare you for on release?” and then align them with providers like Bounce Back and The Clink so employers can see a new and credible talent pool. There could be a league to see which prisons perform the best and governors and their teams could be duly rewarded.
The overwhelming majority of prisoners want to work rather than re-offend. Fact. Projects exist that can enable the processes required and employers – especially in London – need more people to grow our businesses. I remember a governor walking me around his prison a couple of years back and him asking me: “Iqbal, how do I ensure that I don’t see these faces again once they’re released?”
Governors need to be engaged in finding ways of opening up the keys to open up the talent.
The other day I was sent a link to this BBC programme and couldn’t believe a lot of what I was hearing. In America, a lot of minority communities are up in arms because they are witnessing people not from their ethnic backgrounds (ie white folk) making successful businesses selling “their” cuisines. I imagine much of their anger is because these “culturally appropriated” enterprises are successful – if they’d been failures, they would be laughing at them.
Such protectionist outlooks are not in the spirit, in the culture, of cuisine – which is to share. You come to my house and I feed you what we are eating. If you then go on to cook that food yourself, surely I would be flattered, not offended.
Minorities in the US spend a lot of time talking and writing about these things – thankfully not much of that has translated over here. London is full of Asian restaurants created by people who aren’t Asian. Recently we have seen Kricket, Kiln, Som Saa, The Begging Bowl in Peckham – all created by people who travelled around India and the far east, learning the regional cuisines they had become fascinated by to the point that they wished to share their experiences with others.
And what’s wrong if they innovate and adapt? No cuisine should live in a cultural bubble. When I saw ‘samphire pakora’ on the menu at Kricket, I smiled for two reasons. One was that most Indian restaurant chefs wouldn’t know what samphire was, let alone think to make a pakora with it and the second was it was the style of dish we used to do at The Cinnamon Club (where the Kricket chef spent some time) and we would not have been accused of cultural appropriation because it was people with brown faces who had done it.
Tricky? Not really if you don’t feel the repression-driven need to call for “cultural gatekeepers” as they’re doing in the US. If the sons and daughters of Asian migrant settlers here choose the well trodden path of going into professions as opposed to catering, then we should be grateful to the great new restaurants I’ve mentioned for giving us more places to go and enjoy. This is simply the natural ebb and flow of integration and indeed of business – consumers, not complainers, will drive our future.
Many in the business world who are driven by the principle of the triple bottom line – people, profit, planet – look to Unilever’s chief executive as a source of inspiration. For Paul Polman to have committed his company to doubling in sales whilst halving its environmental impact by 2020 I imagine needed a fair amount of grit and determination, not just because both goals are very ambitious but because the second one doesn’t chime with many of his investors or indeed resonate with many of his critics.
He’s aiming for Unilever, which has amongst its portfolio Ben and Jerrys, Marmite, Sunsilk and Vaseline, to not just be carbon neutral in its manufacturing but to becoming carbon positive by eliminating fossil fuels from their energy mix, switching to 100% renewable energy and as they state on their website: “we intend to directly support the generation of more renewable energy than we consume, making the surplus available to the markets and communities where we operate.”
But Unilever is no angel of a company in the way it operates. Under Polman’s watch, in 2011, the company had to close the world’s biggest thermometer manufacturer, after Greenpeace exposed how 5.3 million tons of mercury waste was dumped in a south Indian scrapyard, said to be highly toxic.
In 2008 Greenpeace again knocked again at Unilever’s door, this time over its practices in buying palm oil from suppliers in Indonesia, where 2% of its rain forests were being lost every year, a higher rate than any other country largely due to extracting for palm oil. By burning down forests to clear way for palm oil producers to keep up with world demand, Indonesia had become one of the world’s greatest direct creators of greenhouse gas emissions.
There’s an industry-led regulatory body that is supposed to weed out such practices, The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, and guess what – Unilever chairs it.
So with a reported 60% of his shareholders, according to the recent Bernstein poll, telling him to just cut costs and build profits on one side and Greenpeace whistle-blowers on the other, Polman must find himself in a quite lonely place.
Yet he continues on his mission.
He’s understood to be weighing up the prospect of changing the company into a B Corporation – a relatively new arrival to Britain but growing stronger in America of a movement of businesses that change their articles to allow them to do more than deliver returns to shareholders but also allow them to use company resource to make social and environmental impacts.
It may be the final straw for his investors who haven’t bothered to go on that journey that embeds purpose into profit.
In a tiny, tiny microcosm of what he’s facing, I experienced something similar a couple of years ago meeting with a string of private equity houses to back me to acquire a couple of successful restaurant brands and grow them. Most of them were keen to buy into the 97 page business plan, the third page of which was titled “Our Values” committing the company to a series of measurable social impacts whilst delivering healthy returns to our backers and I. Our corporate finance advisors tried to push the page to the end of the memorandum and I had to keep putting if back to where I wanted it.
It was clear from meeting after meeting that the investment directors just fleeted over that page and that set alarm signals off in my head – if I signed up with any of them, the first thing I imagined they would call for would be for me to cut that out and just focus on making them (and of course me) as much money as possible as quickly as possible.
I challenged one group who’d come to see me what it was about them that would make me want to make them richer than they already were. They were taken aback by a question no-one had ever posed to them before. “What is about you,” I asked, “what is about your values that would make me want to deliver this plan with you?”
In the end, I decided to carry on getting investment from high net worth individuals who largely and increasingly understand the role they can play in shaping the world not through hit and miss philanthropy but through mission-driven businesses.
Of course we hope Polman succeeds – it would send a fantastic message to us all. In the meantime, small and medium sized businesses can take encouragement from the ever growing band of impact investors. For us, we can increasingly marry shareholder value with our and a shareh
It’s hard to tell how many people Anjem Choudary turned into Jihadists – according to The Guardian it’s 100 but The Telegraph and the Daily Mail claim 500. It’s probably impossible to know for sure but we can breathe a collective sigh of relief that this slippery fellow who used his legal training to dodge arrest for so many years finally came a cropper.
The question being asked now is why is it that a man who was banned from so many mosques given so much TV airtime, especially by the BBC? From those Sunday morning religious programmes to Newsnight, he was a regular using his vile rhetoric to deliberately offend any protagonists, knowing fully well that there were many impressionable, alienated young people watching him who would be engaged with someone who had the balls to go out and talk radical.
Of course the BBC will also want to give airtime to someone who says they want to turn Buckingham Palace into a mosque, Britain to sharia law. It makes for good telly – much more than someone going on and saying I’m happy/proud to be part of the British social fabric and don’t see how my religion should be a hindrance in that process. It makes for even better telly if he is in a studio arguing with moderate Muslims in a kind of “look at this lot bickering – what are we to make of all this?” way.
Taking the likes of Choudary off social media as the police had been campaigning for isn’t helpful – after all, it was a You Tube post that finally got him behind bars. Counter extremism groups have sensibly argued that his types had all the time in the world to constantly re-invent their guises which meant so much extra energy chasing newly formed outfits and followings rather than get to grips with the problem itself.
But is a public service broadcaster performing its role responsibly by giving his views such massive airtime, especially as they were doing it to boost viewing figures? They will have known his views were wholly unrepresentative yet continued to give impressionable/alienated youngsters an alternative view which created a narrative in which they could envision having some false sense of power.
So whether it was 100 or 500 or more people he radicalised, BBC executives should be sitting at their desks today not wondering who next on their nutter rollerdex they need to start calling in, but what role they played in that process.