News & Views

Opinion / When the Mountain Comes to Mohammed

by Contagious Contributor
Jonathan Trimble, CEO, 18 Feet & Rising, on why brands getting involved in sustainability need to be in it for the long term

unsplash-logo Sven Scheuermeier

With vast resources to explore, build and buy their way to the top; it’s hard to imagine the giants of global commerce – Unilever, Mars, Diageo, Amazon – having to do much beyond snapping their fingers to make things happen.

Yet for all their success there are areas where size and power are a problem. Where being the biggest isn’t necessarily the best.

In a world where more and more consumers are crying out for sustainability and accountability, the big players are willing to listen but find themselves unable to act.

Entrenched working practices and intractable hierarchies are not the place where individuals or even small groups can bring about wholesale culture change.

And so many are turning to their wallets for the solution. Typical, you might say. Big business buying its way out of trouble.

Well, they’re not in trouble – yet. What they do recognise is that they need to be able to access cultural change and corporate ethos that in this time frame cannot be grown, only acquired. So they turn to the nimble SME community with its finger on the zeitgeist but its coffers in the red.

It’s no coincidence that Unilever has snapped up Pukka Herbs with sustainability at its core and a small but engaged consumer following. Healthy growth of 30% is matched by its fair trading philosophy plus a commitment to donating 1% of sales to global environmental charities.

Global home and personal care brand SC Johnson also announced in late 2017 its intention to buy Method and Ecover from People Against Dirty, a B-Corp certified company specialising in ‘planet friendly’ production.

These acquisitions are different from the ones that have come before. As much attention is being given to creating ‘mission-lock’ as protecting and enhancing financial growth. But this isn’t always the case.

Amazon acquired Whole Foods and overnight the share price-hike covered capital costs with change to spare. But despite the latter’s incredible ethos, innovation and ethical track record, it is simply a toy for Amazon to trial mechanical systems and processes around fresh foods in its bid to encroach on the big supermarkets.

Acquisitions of sustainable SMEs are a way to grow culture, people and creativity just as aggressively as profit. This fresh injection of cash into the B Corp environment is vital to move the sustainable business agenda forward, as a new generation of people harboring lower consumerist ambitions than older generations demand it.

SMEs are also seeing the real value of sustainable business practices and have a desire to grow their offering, despite the lack of purchase power compared to their corporate counterparts.

In research by 18 Feet and Rising, ourselves B Corp certified, our Uprising Report investigated the opinions of sustainability of 100 SME CEOs. A huge number of those CEOs (88%) value sustainability but 70% struggle to make it a reality. Around half (53%) are yet to take any advice on how to introduce more into their businesses and 40% think sustainable practices are too costly to implement.

Many in our report feel the government should be taking the lead although 42% said they don’t feel as though it does enough to encourage sustainable business practices, this despite a high demand for it (71%) from consumers.

Consumers aren’t throwing £30m (Pukka’s sales) at greenwashing – there is belief in the product and the philosophy. That’s why acquiring the culture is as important as the portfolio.

B Corp has become a beacon to those in corporates charged with identifying businesses worth investment, and shows the worth of good culture. The most important company assets are always its people and smaller companies with a strong culture have proven themselves agile, innovative and fast to market.

SMEs have the agility, the passion and the culture to drive real change through the B Corp agenda. They even have the expertise. In moving to the shelter of a global force like Unilever or SC Johnson they then access resources and audience size. Unilever itself estimates that 2.5bn people use one of its products on any given day.

So rather than seeing it as big business trying to buy itself some greenwash, this trend towards sustainable acquisition is about getting an injection of some fully formed sustainable culture that can breed and foment and build on from within. Think of it like a corporate probiotic.

Sustainability really is the third bottom line. One look at Pukka or People Against Dirt shows that there is genuine demand from consumers for sustainable products but only if the company commitment is also genuine.

P&G has been under pressure to follow suit but instead created eco versions of existing brands. Guess what? Without the added culture, they don’t perform as well.

Sustainability, it seems, can be bought – as long as it’s bought into. Size is no advantage when it comes to turning around philosophy and culture and so the mountains must really come to Mohammed if they’re serious about change.