The writer is the creative founder of the Portas Agency and co-chair of the Better Business Act.
My career in business is to find trends, anticipate the next big thing, and help brands make some cash from it. But my conviction, like everyone else, has been challenged lately. The pandemic caused tension and turmoil, then embraced the turmoil and focused on what was important. This experience also confirmed something I started thinking with the team. Business must change. It has to be better.
Nothing was more explicit than the recent P & O ferry scandal. Watching it unfold, I came back to the same question. How did the company think it was right to suddenly dismiss 800 UK-based seafarers and replace them with cheaper agency crews? This decision has devastated employees, their families, and the wider community around them. It caused great confusion for passengers and carriers. It has done a lot of damage to the brand’s reputation — probably permanent and perhaps deadly. Why was this allowed to happen?
It’s always easy to blame the villains of a few mustache-bearing fat cats — and certainly a few around them. It’s nice to see unfortunate executives being pulled in front of parliamentary committees and flooded with media. But they are just doing the same thing that the business world has taught them to do.
I spent my life in a tough, aggressive and competitive work environment with an accepted leadership style. This style worked because the role of business in the capitalist system is primarily to bring growth and profits to shareholders. But if that is the only goal, how do you expect leaders to lead?
A shocking and critical response from the government can result in some penalties for P & O ferries. You may see the workers resurrected. There may be new guidance on employment law tweaks and mass dismissals. What we haven’t seen or heard from the minister yet is an attempt to understand and deal with how such a decision is made in the first place.
More radical changes are needed to prevent this from happening again. We need to go back to seeing what the purpose of the business really is. It’s not just about revenue, we need to prioritize things like the world we live in and the people who live there. The situation of how people buy, sell, manufacture, and live must change. Commerce is necessary to be closely linked to social progress.
This is already happening in society. Consumers demand high ethical and environmental standards from their brands. Employees are expecting more from their employers, or are voting on their own feet and leaving. Investors are trying to invest more money behind a sustainable and ethical business. Slowly, you can see the change of culture. But to tackle the challenges we face, we need to accelerate the pace of change.
As is currently being drafted, UK corporate law is widely understood that the role of a company’s directors is to return as much profit as possible to shareholders. Directors may consider other things, such as the impact on employees of the company and the environment, as necessary. It’s possible, but it doesn’t have to be.
Well, I think they think should do it You really have to. If that is not a requirement, then the P & O’s board of directors will make the decisions. Or, the acquisition of a respiratory pharmaceutical company by a large cigarette raises ethical concerns among health activists. Or a food executive who claims that the board does not allow the sale of healthier foods. Instead, we need to create a decision-making culture that balances society, our planet, and our well-being with commercial needs.
That’s why I added my name along with the names of over 1000 other business leaders to seek better business practices. This gives the company a responsibility to support its workers, customers, communities, and the environment while delivering profits.
It’s time to do this — we can’t wait for another corporate scandal. The government will soon set the legislative agenda in the Queen’s Speech. This is an opportunity to inform your business of its role in achieving Downing Street’s goals of leveling up, reaching Net Zero, attracting investment and promoting the global UK. To achieve these goals, your business must be operating at the highest level. In other words, it creates good work, contributes to the environment as much as possible, promotes innovation, and shows its value to society.
The future of business must look different. My bet is that it is the companies and economies that embrace these new trends that thrive in the market, impress consumers and inspire the most loyalty among employees. The willingness to change should begin here in the UK.