All this said, it’s clear that the public demands that business leaders reflect their personal ethos and operate in ways that benefit society.
From the US to Nigeria, most people believe that business leaders should have a positive influence on their respective nation’s “social and political issues.”
If you’re going to grow your business, you need to do more than virtue-signal. Here’s how to achieve high ethical standards while ensuring potential clients, partners, or employers align with your business values.
Figuring out your core values
You can’t seek partnerships that align with your business values if you don’t even know what they are. Luckily, it’s not too hard to figure them out.
To shape your professional ethos, you first have to understand the concept of “corporate social responsibility,” or CSR. This applies to company leaders, entrepreneurs, and freelancers alike.
Your CSR is your responsibility to greater society. The things you produce or services you provide and the practices behind them should empower and support the individuals and communities you affect. This leads us to the “triple bottom line,” more commonly called “people, planet, profit.”
Social impact (people)
Your business should operate fairly and ethically. All stakeholders should be treated equitably. If you want to step it up a notch, engage in philanthropic causes. This can mean using a portion of your profits to support a verified charity or donating time to local activist groups.
Consider this example: A shop owner and mindfulness teacher sells wellness supplies. For World Meditation Day, she plans to invite a guest teacher for a special program. She could collaborate with another wellness teacher who uses white sage in their practice.
Instead, she chooses to invite an Indigenous person to host a webinar. They discuss why using Indigenous people’s traditional ceremonial herbs in Western meditation perpetuates cultural appropriation.
This business owner has fulfilled her social responsibility. She’s respecting and educating various stakeholders in the following ways:
Affected Indigenous communities: disrupted the cycle of harm in wellness product sourcing
Students and other customers: empowered them with the knowledge to reduce their own harmful behavior
Industry peers: set an example on how to operate in a culturally aware, socially responsible manner
The shop owner’s decision made a lasting impact on multiple demographics, and she demonstrated her business values well. She also reached a new audience and expanded her market presence. How can you make such a change?
employees, customers, community members, etc.
any group or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement of the firm’s objectives
Are there alternatives available or improvements needed in my current materials sourcing or business practices?
What opportunities exist for the company to serve a need in the community?
Are all stakeholders at every stage of the supply line being treated fairly?
Once you answer these questions, you’ll be surprised at how naturally opportunities to collaborate with like-minded professionals arise.
Environmental impact (planet)
No matter what industry you’re in, your business most likely imposes a cost on your local environment. This could take the form of energy consumption, plastic waste disposal, or anything in between.
Whether you realize it or not, prospective customers will look for evidence demonstrating your business’s level of sustainability. If you can follow through, operating sustainably can reap massive, long-lasting rewards.
For one, you’ll develop a much stronger rapport with your target audience. This will then bolster your profitability.
Across Global North countries, half of or most people are more concerned with companies mitigating their environmental harm than paying their taxes!
Show your prospects and potential partners that your company stands for a greener world. They’re sure to appreciate it.
Case in point: According to HBS, products with “on-package” sustainability claims earned almost $114 billion in sales in 2019—a 29% rise from 2013.
Plus, a commitment to green initiatives supports employee satisfaction. Seventy percent of workers say a company’s commitment to sustainability is integral to their decision to stay on the team long-term.
All this considered, you can’t afford to overlook the environmental element of your CSR. As someone who works with and for other professionals, you must ensure your partnerships live up to Earth-friendly standards.
These key steps will help you find and vet potential collaborators, clients, and partners who are just as dedicated to sustainability as you.
Network to find new connections
Participate in community and industry events as a community member first. Sometimes it’s good to ditch the professional lens for a purely human one. I guarantee you’ll find the brands and professional leaders that share your business values when you’re in the right spaces.
For environmental causes, community events can range from community trash pick-ups to volunteer water testing or tree planting. In professional settings, you might attend a conference or expo to exchange ideas with peers.
Follow-up with new contacts
Meet with those professionals you connect with at community or industry events. When you follow up, ask about their priorities.
Make sure to discuss their company goals, mission, and values. Pay attention to how these elements influence their target audience engagement and company culture. You can get a head start on these introductory talks by using intentional language in your marketing materials.
For example, on my About page, I talk about my past professional and volunteer experience, the companies I’ve worked with, and my professional priorities. This allows potential clients and collaborators to self-filter according to their respective business values.
You can do the same by publishing your core company values on your website, for example. Display this with a company vision, mission statement, and other staples that communicate your organizational culture.
Finally, be open about your interest in working with new connections. And when you strike a deal, consider announcing it publicly. You’ll attract like minds and strengthen your position as a conscious leader in sustainability.
Vet potential clients and collaborators
Ensure your new connections embody the business values you prioritize. It’s not enough to partner with someone who merely says they’re “focused on sustainability.” They need action behind their claims.
For example, I claim to prioritize Black and Indigenous people in my science communication and environmental writing. So, I work with an Indigenous-led conservation organization and feature Black history, social issues, and community leaders in many of my projects.
Teaming up with or otherwise supporting historically disenfranchised peoples who bear the brunt of climate change impacts is an excellent way to show your dedication to a greener future for all.
Don’t be fooled! This facet is not as simple as it might appear.
Your goal shouldn’t be to maximize profits alone. Instead, you should consider how to sustain a healthy profit margin and distribute wealth throughout your company equitably.
According to a 2021 Economic Policy Institute report, CEO pay has “skyrocketed” by 1,322% since 1978. As of 2020, CEOs at the top 350 firms in the U.S. were paid an average of $24.2 million. This created a “CEO-to-typical worker compensation” ratio of 351-to-1.
Things may not be this extreme with your company. But the staggering wealth gap is indicative of compensation inequities permeating the business world. And it’s not just about gender and race. Younger workers often face pay discrimination in the workplace, too.
As you assess these internal issues, you must also consider the impact of your pricing on your customers. Check in with them before hiking up prices, and never ask for more of their money without just cause and a worthy offer. Any individual or company you consider working with should be held to the same standard.
Here are a few things to consider as you review this final factor in your CSR:
Are you or your prospective client or partner demanding excessive, uncompensated labor from volunteers?
Are workers paid according to their academic, professional, and volunteer backgrounds?
Are prices considerate of customers’ willingness to pay and their quality of life?
Are workers or contributors paid a livable wage?
How are company interns compensated?
In all financial matters, your decisions and practices should benefit “people, planet, and profit” in a balanced manner.
Connecting with “purpose-driven” people
People want the things they buy and do to mean something. They want their personal and professional lives to reflect their values thoroughly.
Personally, such fulfillment contributes to a sense of individual and collective identity. Professionally, exercising one’s values helps mitigate negative feelings associated with unfulfilling work, such as burnout and alienation.
This is confirmed by the recent Ipsos Global Trends report. The data shows that the public wants business leaders to reflect their personal ethos and operate in ways that benefit society.
With all this in mind, being a “purpose-driven” professional is the only sustainable path forward in any industry. How do you become that or identify this trait in others? HBS offers a roadmap:
Identify your “why:” Get to know the social issues present in your industry and community. Learn how your business impacts these issues, and develop methods to resolve these impacts.
Brainstorm new projects: Give your stakeholders a seat at the table by inviting them into the innovative process. Give them a chance to contribute and “vote” on purpose-driven projects.
Communicate your purpose: Use your personal story to illustrate your company culture and goals. Weave statistical figures into your narrative to bolster your perspective. Take every opportunity to share your “aha” moment to invite others into your ideology.
Encourage emotional intelligence and cultural awareness: Without these traits, you and your professional partners will never truly be able to fulfill your CSR. You must have self-awareness, self-regulation, and empathy to treat all your stakeholders equitably in a way that genuinely exceeds virtue-signaling.
A word of warning against virtue-signaling and echo chambers
Don’t settle for lip service. People will see right through it, and it’ll leave you worse off than if you simply hadn’t bothered!
Here’s an example of social impact done modestly but right: Imagine you own a food delivery startup. You want a sustainable framework, so you partner with gig workers driving electric vehicles (EVs). You don’t want to exclude Tesla owners. But you know about the company’s employee mistreatment and harmful EV battery materials sourcing.
So, you offer bonuses to drivers with more sustainable electric or hybrid vehicles and donate a portion of your profit to Indigenous populations vulnerable to lithium mining.
Now you have something meaningful behind your commitment to sustainability. At the same time, you’re building a like-minded team of drivers to serve your customers.
And that’s the tricky part: Like-minded. Not identically minded. You’re not building an echo chamber. Not everyone surrounding you needs to agree on everything all the time.
Diversity of opinions and perspectives is paramount to the development of innovative solutions. All you need to do is ensure that your partners and colleagues share a triple bottom line. That way, you can work toward shared goals collectively and equitably.
Work with people who share your business values
The times when companies could operate with no social accountability are long gone. Nowadays, more people are “voting with their wallets” and holding business leaders responsible for their actions.
As you seek to grow your business, make sure the people you work with reflect your own respectable ethics and values. Put yourself in the right spaces to connect with like-minded folks. Vet their dedication to their CSR and triple bottom line by asking tough questions about their practices and sourcing.
When you’ve found partners, clients, or employers/employees who share your goals and outlook, you’re well on your way to building a socially responsible business.