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Businesses Cannot Be Successful If the Society Around Them Fails

14/01/2014 12:21 GMT | Updated 16/03/2014 09:59 GMT

Once upon a time the 'S' word - sustainability - was about as relevant to business as a fork in a sugar bowl. At best a box to be ticked; at worst seen as a serious impediment to the pursuit of profit.

But the world is changing. Look at the business news and you'll see the global heads of big businesses uttering that 'S' word with increasing frequency.

Whether they're sincere or not, CEOs of big companies are toning down the macho corporate speak and acknowledging that if the quest for profit is at the expense of the planet, workers, suppliers and customers, we're going to end up in a very bad place. Of course, a lot of this is to do with internet empowered consumers who, increasingly and encouragingly, don't want to buy things from companies that don't do the right thing. But it doesn't matter what the motivation is; the important thing is that we're on the move. Even cynical greenwash is a small step in the right direction.

Of course, companies like Unilever, Nike, Patagonia and the others who are, in the words of Lord Leverhulme, trying to 'do well by doing good' haven't turned into philanthropists overnight. They have boards and shareholders who require success. This is why it's so important to demonstrate that doing the right thing is the right thing to do in both business terms and with regard to sustainability outcomes.

None of these companies are perfect. There's a lot that still needs to be addressed. But they're trying. And this is definitely an area where actions speak louder than words. Everyone knows that action has to be taken to avert ecological and other disasters; and that governments have been pathetic in their ineptitude. Action is vital for all of us and the big companies that are trying to lead from the front deserve our applause, even if their motivation is business opportunism.

Clare Woodcraft, CEO of the Emirates Foundation, expressed this nicely: "When the wind blows there are those that build walls and then there are those that build windmills."

In other words, there are those that are happy to sit and pretend everything is going to be okay, and there are those that see a new world and seek to create benefit out of it - for all their constituencies.

Deciding that doing business sustainably and responsibly is the easy part. The companies intent on truly making a difference have moved beyond the talking are investing in real change - new people, processes, attitudes and cultures. For many of them it's slow, but they're on the way.

Doing well by doing good isn't a new concept. Lord Leverhulme was practising it in the 19th century in Port Sunlight. The difference now is that corporate social responsibility is more than just a passion point for a small and isolated group with the foresight to see what was and is happening to the planet. Finding ways in which societal, environmental and business concerns can align without compromise, creating an irrefutable case for driving real social change, is the key.

So how does that happen? Well, a fine exemplification of this approach can be found in a remarkable idea from creative agency Droga5, which had the simple idea of distributing a bone marrow donor registry kit inside over the counter boxes of plasters.

Traditionally, donor registration had been complicated, expensive and frustrating. This new Help kit - containing instructions, swabs and a pre-paid envelope - was designed to catch people while they were already bleeding and make registration as simple as it could possibly be.

By making bone marrow registry part of daily life, and a mass-produced consumer product, the White Pencil-winning 'Help I Want to Save A Life' campaign reached a huge, new audience and completely changed the way in which bone marrow registration was perceived - all the while boosting sales of Help Remedies plasters by over 1900% too.

That is the place we need to get to. If we can continue to promote, foster, cultivate and celebrate that spirit of innovation, then the idea of corporate social responsibility might become the norm we're aspiring towards.

When everybody benefits - consumer, supplier, retailer, employee, employer and shareholder - then the motivation will indeed become irrelevant and we will reach that better place.

Entries for the D&AD White Pencil Award, in association with Unilever, are open now until January 29th. To find out more about D&AD and the White Pencil, visit http://www.dandad.org/whitepencil