Building a business based on purpose

18 Nov 2019

Safia Minney founded pioneering sustainable fashion label People Tree in 1991 on a belief that ethical businesses can be successful. Now she’s helping other business leaders who want to bring about positive change to people and the planet.

Early in her career, Minney noticed too many businesses were failing in their responsibilities – not just to customers, but to all stakeholders. She remembers, during her time in publishing and marketing, remarking on how much talent and financial resource was being used to promote products that were not necessary, sustainable nor made responsibly.
 
For over two decades, she has been fighting against the “systemically broken” way of doing business, pioneering the Fair-Trade movement, collecting awards and an MBE, and authoring nine books, including Slave to Fashion and Slow Fashion – Aesthetics meets Ethics, on the subject. Not because she believes business is inherently bad, but because: “I very strongly believe that business can be a tool for good.”
 
Minney is tapping into very real concerns among fellow business leaders; our research into business purpose found 47% of business leaders support campaigns and alliances for worthy causes, and 46% employ measures to cut waste as a business.

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Minney’s newest initiative, called REAL, is a centre of learning for senior leaders in fashion retail and communications who want to make sustainability and climate action central to what they do. She talks to us about how beginning with a purpose and a social mission can give a business both clarity and legitimacy, and where she’s seeing the most change.
 

What inspired this new centre of learning?

Many CEOs and senior leaders, even boards, are concerned about their impact on the planet and the communities in which they operate. Some are actively seeking examples within their sectors of better practice, and yet seldom find them.
 
There’s very little best practice out there. If I was a citizen looking to buy something, I would buy from the pioneers, because everything else we’ve got – quite frankly – isn’t good enough.
 
I honestly believe that 1 in 3 people are changemakers within their organisations – champions for sustainability. But there is a very real need for them to have a safe space to engage, and that’s what I’m hoping this new centre will become, especially for those in the fashion industry.
 

What issues do you hope REAL will begin to resolve?

There are too many issues in the way business is conducted, particularly in the supply chain, and not enough awareness, knowledge and organisational commitment about how to face them.
 
If you target and work with suppliers or producer partners, pay them fairly, make regular orders, look at a circular economics approach, reduce carbon emissions and waste, and work in partnership to design and produce, you can really support and develop a community. You can protect the environment, support schools, identify issues at grassroots level and support them as a business partner. That’s the kind of trading relationship we need in the future.
 

We hear many companies make statements about their ‘purpose’, but the relationship you’ve described is not well established. Why is that?

I get a little frustrated with the ‘purpose’ word. While it’s great to give employees a day off to work with a charity, it can be ‘end of pipe’ – we need to work on the cause of the real problems we face. I have great respect for companies who gave employees time off to strike for climate action on September 20, for example. It feels disingenuous to support, say, a cancer research charity whilst pumping carcinogenic toxins into the environment at an alarming rate.
 
Our responsibility, our obligation as businesses should be built on the basic foundation of respecting human rights and environmental laws in developing countries. We should use our corporate power to ensure these laws are enforced, so good businesses can compete on a level playing field.
Safia Minney

“What’s clear is that everything has come to a head. There isn’t a CEO of a major business that doesn’t understand that their supply chain is at risk because of the climate crisis.”

Safia Minney

 
Our responsibility, our obligation as businesses should be built on the basic foundation of respecting human rights and environmental laws in developing countries. We should use our corporate power to ensure these laws are enforced, so good businesses can compete on a level playing field.
 
The excitement for me in big business is that, finally, many more are recognising that we are facing an unprecedented global emergency. The question now is how they act.
 

What signs are there that businesses are beginning to take the climate crisis seriously?

Myself and 20 other business leaders penned a letter in April to The Times, voicing our support for Extinction Rebellion, the environmental protest group that shut down parts of London earlier this year, and calling for changes to the way we do business. Signatories included Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever; Dale Vince OBE, founder of The Ecotricity Group; and Chris Davis, CSO of The Body Shop International.
 
In it, we acknowledge that: “most businesses were not designed in the context of the developing climate emergency. Hence we must urgently redesign entire industries and businesses, using science-based targets.
 
To kickstart the process, businesses should make a declaration that we face a climate emergency and organise a session at a full board meeting to consider the case for urgent action.”
 
Many businesses and industries, are beginning to respond. Even in financial services, where big names have traditionally been slow to embrace change, we have environmental, social and governance criteria to better determine the sustainability credentials of one investment over another.
 
In fashion, where I’ve spent the majority of my working life, we have Fashion Revolution, Common Objective and other players that are uniting people and organisations to work towards radically changing the way our clothes are sourced, produced and consumed. With Extinction Rebellion recently calling for a boycott of London Fashion Week, it’s clear that things are changing fast.
 
The G7 are now seriously discussing the future model of fashion – the industry currently accounts for 7% of global emissions, and this is projected to rise 25% by 2050 – so it is clear the fashion industry has to change urgently.
 

How optimistic are you that many more businesses will follow?

What’s clear is everything has come to a head. There isn’t a CEO of a major business who doesn’t understand their supply chain is at risk because of the climate crisis. This September saw the launch of the Business Declares platform. The availability of inputs is going to affect their business model, margins and ability to bring products to market.
 
It’s really a defining time. If we transform our business models to reflect the society we want to live, we can create one that is more sustainable and participative and less hierarchical.
 
First, we need to look at all the elements around our businesses, at key stakeholders not just shareholders. The shareholder model needs to transform urgently and significantly. If it does, we will be looking at a new, different and very much more positive way of doing business. Sustainable business is the only way of doing business. After all, there is no business, trade or investment in a dead planet.

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