‘Talking the talk’ rather than ‘walking the walk’ is one of humanity’s fundamental traits and age-old flaws. Socrates would often sniping about bluster and rhetoric, specifically the way we use language to convey a picture of the world that we want people to see rather than the world as it truly is.
Almost 2500 years on and not much has changed. Rhetoric, or talking a good game, is used in all areas of life and none so more than in business — especially when it comes to companies outlining their efforts to be responsible in relation to their carbon footprint and the environment.
Our research confirms this: an analysis of data from 64 major British companies in 24 sectors, with a combined turnover of over 100 billion pounds, shows that while 86% of them have a purpose statement, only 16% of them are actually doing anything about it. As a symposium on improving the world, Davos is unrivalled, but when the world’s political, corporate and economic elites disperse, the grandiose plans set out in the popular ski resort tend to melt away like the snow.
This year, however, there was a sense that businesses finally have to start putting their promises into practice. The presence of Greta Thunberg in the Swiss ski resort underlined that the tendency of companies to ‘greenwash’, or pay lip service to decarbonisation, would no longer be tolerated.
But an open letter by Larry Fink, the chief executive of the world’s largest asset manager BlackRock on the eve of Davos was arguably more impactful still: it was a clear message to businesses that if they continue to fail to act on their words then they could pay for the consequences, losing consumers, the support of businesses in their supply chains, and investors – all of which will hit their share prices hard.
There’s certainly a feeling that we have reached a tipping point; that now is finally the time for action rather than words – for taking the magisterial corporate pledges that are often made about sustainability and ensuring, for once, that they are actually acted upon.
The challenge for companies in the 2020s is to finally implement the positive policies that most have signed up to – and not just internally but through their entire supply chains. It is a daunting challenge but until more companies take those first few steps they will be doing society and the environment an egregious disservice.
What the world’s biggest companies can no longer do is use their size and complexity as an excuse for inaction. Yes, there’s no doubt that the attempt of many companies to make themselves carbon-neutral – or carbon-negative in the case of Microsoft – will take time to get right. After all, unlike many social enterprises and start-ups, the world’s biggest businesses were set up with the goal of delivering profit rather than doing good. They are now having to retrofit purpose, which for many will be an unprecedented challenge.
As contrarian as it sounds, big business should take the time to learn from infinitely smaller social enterprises, who have purpose and authenticity embedded in their DNA. If they can go at least some way to replicating that authenticity, the battle will be half won.