Forget the election – businesses are changing the world with inspiring leadership

This very strange general election has drawn to a close, but given all the other enormous events that have taken place in recent weeks, you would have been forgiven for missing it. Many people seem surprised by Labour’s success and the strong youth turnout, but I think it reflects our changing world.

I watched the One Love concert in Manchester last Sunday, held to commemorate the tragic terrorist attack of last month, and it reminded me of the Live Aid concert in 1985 and then three years later, the Nelson Mandela 70th birthday tribute concert in 1988. Last Sunday, young people were coming together with a new sense of social purpose.

They will always take a stand on the issues that really matter to them if they feel they are being engaged in the conversation. Labour and Jeremy Corbyn did that very successfully, but businesses can do that too.

Climate change is an issue very close to the hearts of young people. Indeed they are usually the most likely to take to the streets and march in favour of positive action on the environment. This week’s freak storms in South Africa, which have tragically caused multiple deaths and mass devastation, show that climate change is already causing havoc around the world.      

The world needs inspirational leaders now more than ever, and I am encouraged to see so many companies that are taking a stand to drive positive social change. On climate change, there is no shortage of examples.

This month Marks & Spencer renewed its sustainability strategy, Plan A, with new pledges to halve food waste by 2025 and to boost sustainable sourcing. This is a fantastic story when you think that Plan A has been running for over a decade, having started life in January 2007.

It has already notched up some amazing achievements, including more than 27 million items of clothing recycled. M&S can also claim the very laudable title of being the world’s first carbon neutral major retailer.

“We believe we can engage all of our 32 million customers, 85,000 colleagues and 200,000 shareholders in the plan that becomes a mass voice for sustainable change.” – Steve Rowe, CEO, Marks & Spencer

This week also saw Stella McCartney announce a new partnership with a conservation charity that will involve using recycled plastic debris collected from the oceans in her clothing lines. In the FMCG world, meanwhile, General Mills has signed a 15-year wind power deal to help it meet its targets on cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Inspiring stories are everywhere you look.

I was also heartened to see how the business world responded to President Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Paris climate agreement. The world’s biggest brands including Apple, Google, Facebook and PepsiCo lined up to criticise the move, while Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Walt Disney’s boss Bob Iger announced they would leave the White House’s business advisory council in response to the decision.

As I wrote in a recent column about Simon Susman, the hugely inspirational chairman of Woolworths Holdings, positive social change comes from putting the right values at the heart of a business. That is true of big corporates, but also of smaller challenger brands like Lily’s Kitchen, Divine Chocolate and Bear Nibbles that are thriving thanks to their clear commitment to organic, ethical sourcing and environmental protection.

In today’s social media age, businesses are under the microscope like never before, so transparency is vital. That is why the likes of Woolworths South Africa and M&S produce in-depth reports that track their sustainability work, and why they continue to set new targets. Last month Unilever also published its sixth Sustainable Living Plan report, announcing that it had reduced CO2 emissions by 43% per tonne of production since the plan launched in 2010.

Unveiling the report, Unilever CEO Paul Polman said: “Our results show that sustainability is good for business, with increasing evidence that our ‘Sustainable Living brands’ do better.”

Yet more proof, if it were needed, that having a values-driven approach can help to build stronger businesses, as well as a better world. | @MoiraBenigson | @TheMBSGroup