Can business be good AND make money?

  • Consumer trends

2020 has seen consumers place rising demands on the businesses they buy from. We’re increasingly judging companies on their corporate social responsibility, but the challenge is to make sure these good intentions come true, says Ben Page.

For business, 2020 has seems as tumultuous a year as any I can remember. Not only has it faced the immediate shock of closure of large parts of the economy, but the crisis has also sharpened attention on the broader role of business in society and as an employer.


Overall the vast majority of people think that business responded well to Covid-19 – some eight out of ten workers in Britain told us their employer behaved in a responsible way during the crisis, and the same proportion think their employer adapted well. Three-quarters think employers looked after their workers’ wellbeing effectively. These ratings are all much higher than the government has received for its handling of the crisis, which now has only 32% satisfied overall.


At the same time, 2020 has been a year where there has been renewed focus on the social role of business. They may have kept the country running, food in the shops, and deliveries to our door, but are they ultimately behaving the way we would like them to?  During 2020 we saw the proportion of people saying that they wanted to buy from brands that reflected their own values rise from 54% to 72%. The proportion who want business leaders to speak out on social and political issues rose from 62% to 68%. The message seems clear – business with purpose matters: even before the crisis, 78% said it was possible to make money and do good at the same time.


So in 2020, it was not just enough to do your job well, and deliver value for money – you also had to be seen to be taking an active stance on issues like inclusion and diversity. The murder of George Floyd, and the Black Lives Matter protests in America and Britain that followed showed how the crisis has brought the reality of many painful issues closer to home. Concern about race relations in Britain hit the highest level ever recorded by Ipsos MORI in 2020. As my colleague Rob Scotland puts it “globally, we are closer now. We’re only three people away from someone that had the disease, that’s had a food shortage, or will be made redundant. Which is why we’re at a tipping point with Black Lives Matter, because progressive white people, were at home, and were forced to watch this man die. He’s not far away any more.” (Rob Scotland, Head of Strategy, McCann London)

The dislocation of 2020 has forced a re-appraisal by business of how it treats its people.

Remote and part-time and flexible working has become the norm. Businesses have realised that their staff are often just as productive working remotely – and both bosses and staff have often appreciated the time and stress saved by not commuting. It looks as though most firms will not return to a 9-5 regime in a single office, but most will move to a much more blended mixture of home and office working, and more flexibility for all. Almost half (47%) expect staff to split their time evenly between home and the workplace in future. Working from home is seen to be positive in terms of attracting and retaining staff, with 53% reporting a positive impact, many times more than those who think it is negative (14%).


Overwhelmingly, the data suggests companies want to grasp the opportunity presented by the crisis to reassess their impact upon society. A majority of British firms are keen to improve employees’ work-life balance, do more on inclusion and diversity, reduce carbon emissions and support local communities where they are based:

  • 67% say they will have increased activities ‘to make our business more diverse and inclusive’ (1% decrease);
  • 67% say they expect to have increased activities to ‘support the net zero carbon emissions reduction target’ compared to 2019 (5% decrease);
  • 57% say they will have increased activities ‘to support our local communities’ (3% decrease).


On the face of it this is hugely positive. There has been a massive jump in the number of FTSE board members who say corporate social responsibility is key in judging companies this year – as the chart below shows.

At the same time, the challenge will be making all these good intentions come true. For example, we have found an ever-increasing proportion of the FTSE 500 saying they are working on improving gender diversity. The proportion saying they are actively trying to increase the number of women on their board is up from 35% in 2016 to 66% this year – but the number of women on FTSE boards remains at only 30% for the top 250 firms, and only 15% of finance directors are women.


So as the long slow recovery finally begins in 2021, more than ever the question will be whether business can do good AND make money. History says it can, but some positive scrutiny helps!


Ben Page is chief executive of Ipsos MORI


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