As 2010 came to a close, StrategyOne, an Edelman public relations company, released the results of a survey on the public attitudes toward American business. The results were pretty ugly, but hardly surprising:
Surprised? No one who occupies a corner office today should wonder why Americans hold such a low opinion of them and their colleagues. Consider these facts -- eight reasons why we've entered very dangerous territory.
While most consumers could not cite these statistics, they are nonetheless experiencing their very real impacts each day.
They're also unwittingly suffering from our economic system's lack of full-cost accounting, which has made it perfectly acceptable for companies to "externalize" their negative social and environmental impacts and shift the burdens of these impacts, financial and otherwise, to society at large.
The result is the de facto public subsidization of harmful practices and products, a world where "bad" stuff is cheap (think coal, candy and genetically-modified corn) and "good" stuff is comparatively expensive (think organic food, hybrid cars, and higher education). Put it all together and you get the biggest challenge we face as a nation today -- a dangerously negative trajectory pulling us ever closer to the point of no return.
Twenty three years ago, I founded Seventh Generation with the idea of creating a different way of doing business, and I've spent over two decades building the company into one that many consider a model of meaningful systemic corporate responsibility.
During my tenure, I saw business make an incredible amount of progress. Milton Friedman's thesis that the only responsibility of business is to increase shareholder value has been rejected in boardrooms across the country. Today, an increasing number of businesses are committed to taking responsibility for all of their stakeholders, even if their results fall well short of expectations.
While many of you know that I am no longer executive chairman of Seventh Generation, my work in corporate responsibility from inside a company has given me a rare perspective on this evolution,. The fact remains that all businesses will need to become radically more sustainable, transparent and responsible to succeed and survive in the twenty-first century. It's no longer simply "nice to do"; it's become a business imperative.
So, what do we do about our current mess?
As we know from Americans' attitudes about business and the state of our economy, big changes are needed. The time for incremental improvements has passed, and if business leaders don't step up and make some major changes, they will risk an increasingly more aggressive and violent public response. To reverse course and avoid these outcomes, here are five things business leaders must do in 2011:
Together, these steps form a reasonable and effective way to begin promoting the politics and policies of a just and sustainable world. This is the task that I believe to be the most important and profound challenge in today's society, and the time for us to get to it is quickly running out.
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