10/30/2015 02:14 EDT | Updated 10/30/2016 05:12 EDT

The Future Of Business Lies In Sustainability

Shutterstock / weerapat kiatdumrong

Perhaps you've heard the news that everyone is doomed.

There's a crater-sized gap between rich and poor and our planet is running out of room and resources, among other calamities. Governments and charities are struggling to right the ship.

But what about business?

If all companies harnessed their powers for good, capitalism could be the most influential force for social change. (It may surprise you to hear this from the founders of a charity and a social enterprise.)

The traditional purpose of business is to increase shareholder value. Yet companies large and small are increasingly proving they can make a profit and help solve a systemic social problems by embedding this mission into their business strategy. It's the evolution of corporate social responsibility (CSR).

Look at Unilever, one of the world's largest consumer goods manufacturers. On any given day, more than two billion people use Unilever products. It's a company with global reach and impact.

Some of Unilever's brands, like the iconic Ben & Jerry's ice cream, have built a massive following from championing causes.

Unilever has set an ambitious target to halve the waste in its production processes by 2020. In 2013, the company's facilities had produced 97,000 fewer tonnes of waste than five years previously--equivalent in weight to more than 8,000 school buses. During the same period, the company reduced its water use by enough to fill 5,600 Olympic-sized swimming pools. This January, Unilever announced that it had achieved its goal of sending zero hazardous waste to landfills.

"Business cannot thrive in societies and communities that are broken," warned Unilever CEO Paul Polman in a speech to fellow businesspeople in Chicago in April.

When it comes to implementing sustainability initiatives, global multinationals have "more power than the UN," says Kernaghan Webb, professor at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto and founding director of the Ryerson Institute for the Study of Corporate Social Responsibility.

Still, too many companies in Canada and in the West are thinking of CSR in terms of risk management, if they are thinking about it at all, says Webb.

CSR is little more than a PR tool to reduce negative press when something goes wrong. And CSR programs are often tacked onto firms, without meaningful employee engagement, or any ties to the core business mandate.

Fortunately, things are changing.

In 2013, 72 per cent of companies on the S&P 500 stock market index published some form responsibility report. This is a colossal leap from just under 20 per cent in 2011, according to the Governance and Accountability Institute, a New York-based consulting firm.

Leading the charge are people like Polman. While many companies are just beginning to publish CSR reports, Polman has already moved Unilever to the next level. The company eliminated its separate CSR report, opting instead to embed sustainability and social good in its core annual report.

And good citizenship isn't hurting Unilever's bottom line. In January, Polman told reporters: "Our share price is up 25 per cent over the past four months alone, showing the world that you can address tough issues without touching the economic viability of your business model."

Unilever isn't alone. Corporate Knights magazine publishes an annual list of the 100 most socially responsible corporations in the world--companies making incredible strides in combining progress with profit. Last year's rankings included Canadian companies like TELUS and Sun Life Financial. Even the much-maligned Walmart has made strides in improving sustainability, reducing waste and energy use.

Changing the world will never be a company's primary goal; corporations need to know they'll make money. That's where the rest of us come in. If consumers want more businesses to become responsible, they can help make doing good profitable.

Ask more questions about your product's origin, vote with your dollars and buy more socially conscious brands.

Good corporate citizenship ought to be more than a don't-get-caught-doing-anything-wrong mentality. In an age of ever-shrinking government budgets, the world must look to business to step up and play its part for sustainable social change.


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