The Business Covenant: Sustainability & Community

When Tesco opened a small branch in the village, it inevitably sounded the death knell for the old bakery next door. The village butcher and greengrocers weren’t far behind. There were grumbles, indeed, there had been a protest, letters to the council, some controversy, but in the end, it’s progress: what can you do. The perpetual march of the super brands, with their distribution hubs, their loyalty schemes and their own brand yoghurt.

The business covenant

We need a new Covenant, between business, government and society. One that delivers value over time.

The baker didn’t exactly know my name, but he certainly recognised me by sight. He was of the community, part of the community in a way that the supermarket never can be. Or never could be anyway.

When my parents took out their first mortgage, they were interviewed by the Bank Manager, in his suit, who made the final decision. The hand written papers were drawn up and stored there, in the branch. Today: it’s online. Things change and part of the disconnect we feel is between the local, which somehow belongs to us, and the multinational, which doesn’t.

The competition is between Starbucks, the global brand, and The Dog House, the characterful local cafe. Both sit five minutes walk from my house, both employ local people, but one pays more tax in the UK and somehow feels like it’s ‘ours‘.

There’s a large insurance company i know, headquartered just around the corner. Most of my friends worked there at one time or another: spending a summer in the call centre after University, maybe doing IT support, one as a secretary. None work there anymore. Transient work, work to fill our time and fill our wallets for summers of BBQs and dreams of foreign holidays. Work to fulfil a need, not a vocation.

The world has changed: more brands, more multinational, more transient. Bigger businesses, bigger profits, less permanence. But something has been lost.

It’s a naive oversimplification to blame the financial crisis on the Banks: government creates a regulatory framework, banks seek to optimise profits within that. Government creates space for competition in energy markets, companies try to maximise sales with clever adverts and obtuse contracts. Everybody wants organic, carbon neutral, gluten free pumpkin bread: everybody wants ‘two for one‘ and cheaper fuel. It’s a complex web of regulation, desire, profits and consumption.

But somewhere in the mix, we often lose something: we lose the ‘local‘ aspect, we lose accountability and fairness, we lose our culture, we lose what’s right.

Right‘ is not shareholder value and dividends.

Right‘ is not bigger profits and more stores.

Right‘ is not a larger storefront or winter sale.

Right is about balance, about equality, about fairness and community value.

Right is about social justice and empathy.

Right is about permanence and commitment to the communities we live in.

It’s a balance that’s often missed.

There’s a large office block downtown, by the station: or rather, there was. All that’s left now is a pile of rubble and some steelwork pointing to the sky. Before the demolition was dereliction: ten years standing empty. Before that, a thriving financial service provider. But when times were tight, they shut up shop, leaving a gap in the landscape and a gap in people’s careers.

Is that volatility right? Is it right to leave a building empty? Is it right to centralise resources and abandon the town, to offshore work to another continent? What’s the nature of the covenant between communities, society, governments, shareholders and individuals.

Currently: it’s too fragmented, too divisive, to much driven by money alone. It needs to be driven by values: shareholder value, sure, but also community value.

Look at the culture in the big Banks: the failings weren’t caused by a small group of individuals. They were caused by permissive environments, by fractures in culture and rifts in trust. Fractures that open up when the disconnect between individual values and corporate culture becomes too great. When the cost of belonging exceeds the cost of integrity.

These organisations are out of balance, out of balance with the societies they exist within and, to a degree, to serve. Not in that older notion of ‘service industries‘, but in the sense of social justice: we commit our time, our integrity, our effort to build these businesses up and deliver value. They, in turn, have a responsibility to us, as individuals and as a society. And government has a part to play too: instead of perpetuating the cat and mouse game of regulation and punishment, greater collaboration.

Many organisations want to do the right thing: they are simply unable to effect the change required. Part of that change will be generated through appropriate regulation, part through strong and clear leadership, much of it though is co-created as a local and community level. We need stronger engagement in this local change.

The CAIR model explores values: it runs facilitated conversations at every level, from execs to frontline staff, and can extend into the community. It’s a structured tool to explore conversations about what’s right and how we get there.

Whatever methodology is used, change is required: the imbalance we feel now is because of the disconnect between what’s legislated for and what’s just right. Legislation will never deliver ‘right‘.

I’ve written about equality widely: but why do we still have to fight this fight? Because, of course, there’s an imbalance. The change is being driven from the top, but it needs to be co-created and co-owned throughout.

The cultural change required by the banks: this won’t be driven just through ‘change programmes‘ and half day workshops. It’s got to be driven by a reassessment of what’s right and, working back from that, how we do the right things. That happens through engagement at every level and by reaching out beyond the four walls into the community. Our communities. The communities that house and nurture us: do you want your organisational legacy to be long term, community value, or a pile of rubble?

Under the current framework, organisations make decisions to enter or leave markets, to expand or consolidate, to grow or to shrink, largely on financial value. That’s a good thing, but we can do better. We can include community value: by rewarding and recognising long term commitment to communities, long term commitment to learning and development, long term commitment to change and equality.

It’s not purely the responsibility of organisations, not purely the banks, the energy companies, the retailers, who have to do this: it’s government and society too.

Look at the co-operative movement: John Lewis, owned by it’s colleagues. Owned by the communities that it inhabits. It’s not the right model for everyone, but it’s a strong inspiration.

There’s nothing wrong with making money: but get the community value right and you can make more money over time, whilst growing and building sustainable trust and integrity. People don’t trust their banks, don’t trust their energy company. Maybe it’s time that trust was earned.

The starting point is reflection and engagement: understanding what the purpose is of the organisation and how it engages with it’s staff, it’s shareholders, it’s communities. From there, we can understand the change required and work towards a better goal. Sustainable value: equality and growth, community based.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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15 Responses to The Business Covenant: Sustainability & Community

  1. Arti Rajesh says:

    Hi Julian,

    This was a great read. Very thoughtful. 

    Thanks for sharing!

    Warm Regards,  Arti Rajesh

    Sent from Samsung Mobile

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