Renewing the purpose of business
Businesses are fundamental to any economy. They come in all shapes and sizes, from sole traders to multinational giants. But in recent years there has been growing criticism, both of the way some businesses behave, and of how they are governed. Much of this has come from within the business community itself.
A key argument is that many large businesses have lost their sense of ‘purpose’. Increasingly focused on financial metrics of success, many are now seen as prioritising short-term returns above long-term investment, and the interests of their shareholders above those of their wider ‘stakeholders’, such as their workers and consumers.
Partly as a consequence, new models of business have become more prominent. These include companies committed to an explicit statement of purpose. New types of ‘stakeholder’ corporate governance and financial investing are on the agenda, along with new forms of ownership giving a greater stake to workers. In these and other ways, an increasing number of businesses are seeking to change their impact on society and the environment. But some critics have expressed doubt as to whether some of these initiatives are far-reaching enough.
The British Academy’s Principles for Purposeful Business offers eight principles for business leaders and policymakers to enable companies to solve the problems of people and planet profitably, while not profiting from causing harm.
Advocating a ‘responsible capitalism’, the Financial Times surveys the issues involved in making businesses purposeful, and the experience of companies declaring their commitment to it (paywalled).
‘B Corporations’ are businesses that meet certified standards of social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. B Corps seek to use profits and growth as a means to achieve positive impact for their employees, communities, and the environment.
Supported by the CBI and TUC, the Good Business Charter is an accreditation system which measures corporate behaviour in ten areas, including a real living wage, fairer hours and contracts, employee representation, diversity and inclusion, environmental responsibility, paying fair tax, and ethical sourcing.
Imperative 21 is a network of 70,000 companies promoting new principles for a ‘reset’ of the economic system. It aims to equip business leaders to accelerate their transition to stakeholder capitalism; to shift the cultural narrative about the role of business and finance in society; and to realign business incentives and public policy.
Reforming corporate governance
Corporate governance in the UK and US is based on the principle of shareholder primacy. This means that the interests of shareholders take priority over those of other stakeholders in a firm, such as workers, suppliers or consumers. There is good evidence that this can encourage an excessive focus on short-term profitability, at the expense of long-term investment.
It is widely argued therefore that the Anglo- American model of corporate governance should better reflect the interests of a company’s stakeholders, not just its shareholders. Proposed reforms include giving firms an explicit duty to pursue long-term purpose or value creation, and to tie executive pay to a range of performance metrics rather than just a firm's profitability or share price.
A particular focus for reform is the make-up of company boards. Advocates of worker representation on company boards – which is commonplace in many European countries – argue that it would tend to strengthen investment, because workers have a longer-term interest in their companies than short-term shareholders. By fostering a culture of cooperation between managers and workers, it is said, it would also boost productivity. There are also widespread calls for mandatory improvement in the gender and ethnic diversity of company boards.
The Purposeful Company calls for firms to have an explicit duty to pursue long-term value creation. It argues for executive pay to be linked to long-term business performance, and for differential voting rights for short-term and long-term shareholders.
The IPPR calls for changes to company law to give directors an explicit responsibility to promote the long-term success of a company and for a new Companies Commission to regulate corporate governance.
The World Economic Forum sets out the theory and practice of ‘stakeholder capitalism’, in which firms are accountable to their wider stakeholders, not just shareholders.
The TUC proposes that one third of the boards of all large businesses should be made up of workers elected by the workforce, arguing that this would boost productivity and overall economic performance.
Surveying more than 1000 companies in 15 countries, McKinsey find that greater diversity in executive teams increases the likelihood that a firm will financially outperform its competitors. They argue that ‘diversity wins and inclusion matters’.
Economics blogger Noahpinion collated and summarised recent scholarly work on the various economic harms of concentrated corporate power.
ESG: environmental, social and corporate governance principles
Over recent years there has been a huge increase in the number of companies and financial investors committing to ‘ESG’ principles, under which they aim to achieve not just profit and financial returns but better environmental and social impact and corporate governance. Globally, assets classed as ‘ESG’ were valued at over $30 trillion in 2018, an increase of a third on 2016. ESG investment funds have consistently outperformed the average, and there is strong evidence that an attention to ESG can improve shareholder returns.
ESG principles commit companies and investors to assessing their performance through the ‘triple bottom line’ of ‘people, planet and profit’ (sometimes known as TBL or 3Ps). But there is no universal agreement on the specific standards of behaviour which define ESG, or the metrics which should be used to measure performance. With so many different criteria used by ESG investment funds, critics argue that too many allow for ‘greenwashing’ of companies with unsustainable and socially damaging impacts.
When the US Business Roundtable released a statement in 2019 arguing that US businesses should be committed to a broad range of stakeholders – including customers, employees, suppliers and communities as well as shareholders – this was widely interpreted as a significant shift in business philosophy. But others argued that ‘stakeholder capitalism’ in practice looked insufficiently different from shareholder capitalism. Activist investors, both corporate and individual, are increasingly seeking to hold businesses to account in order to raise ESG standards.
Reviewing the evidence, consultants McKinsey find that business ESG strategies are positively correlated with financial performance and explain how they can contribute to growth, cost reduction and productivity improvement.
The Principles of Responsible Investment are a set of guidelines on how financial investors should incorporate ESG issues into their investment analysis and decision-making. With 3000 signatory companies, the PRI organisation promotes responsible ESG investing.
Seeking to provide standard measures of ESG performance, the World Economic Forum has published a set of ‘stakeholder capitalism metrics’ to enable companies to report consistently on their long-term ‘sustainable value creation’.
Author of the original concept John Elkington argues that 25 years on the ‘triple bottom line’ needs rethinking: environmental sustainability requires greater radical intent to stop the overshooting of planetary boundaries.
Analysing the rise of ESG investing, Common Wealth shows that ESG funds can include companies with both environmentally and socially damaging impacts, and argues for much stricter criteria and their incorporation into the fiduciary duties of shareholders.
Activist investor groups, such as Share Action, CDP and Ceres seek to use the power of individual shareholders and fund managers to influence the behaviour of companies and to improve their reporting of environment and social impacts.
Regulating corporate behaviour
As multinational corporations throughout the world have grown over recent decades, they have developed complex supply chains. Globally traded commodities and goods may go through many stages of production in different countries before being made into the final products we buy. In this process it is easy for companies to profit from exploitative wages and conditions, forced labour and environmental harm, particularly in the global South where workers and local communities may have little bargaining power and enforcement is difficult.
Most of the initiatives designed to prevent abuses of this kind have been voluntary, where companies commit to codes of ‘corporate social responsibility’. But there is strong evidence to suggest that these are often ineffective. Companies are insufficiently motivated or incentivised to audit their supply chains properly.
One response has been the development of ‘worker driven social responsibility’, where trade unions and workers’ organisations agree higher standards with companies, and are able to enforce them. Another has been the development of ‘due diligence’ laws, by which multinationals are obliged under the law of their home states to audit their supply chains and ensure high standards, in areas such as labour conditions, human rights, environmental impacts and anti-corruption. The evidence suggests that a requirement to report on their supply chains is not enough; companies need to be criminally liable to ensure compliance.
The Worker-Driven Responsibility Network calls for agreements between multinationals and their local workforces to ensure decent labour standards, while the Corporate Accountability Lab proposes ‘worker-enforceable codes of conduct’ which would give workers the legal right to take violators to court.
Genevieve LeBaron and Andreas Ruehmkorf at the University of Sheffield analyse different methods by which the impacts of multinational corporations through their global supply chains can be regulated by their ‘home’ states. They conclude that criminal liability achieves more than voluntary reporting requirements.
Reviewing 16,000 corporate statements made over the first five years of the UK’s Modern Slavery Act, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre concludes that the Act has not prevented human rights abuses in corporate supply chains. Legally binding and enforced obligations on companies are needed, not simply reporting requirements.
The French Government introduced a ‘duty of vigilance law’ in 2017, under which French multinationals are criminally liable for the activities of their subsidiaries and subcontractors in the event of human rights or environmental violations.
In the EU a proposed due diligence law is working its way through the Commission and Parliament, based on a report identifying the different mechanisms by which standards of behaviour in corporate supply chains can be defined and enforced.
The CORE coalition is calling for a UK ‘failure to prevent’ law, under which companies would be legally obliged to take action to prevent human rights abuses and environmental harm anywhere in their global value chain.
Executive pay and pay ratios
One of the most persistent criticisms of corporate behaviour has been of the high levels of pay and share options by which company executives are often remunerated. Since 2000 the average earnings of workers in the UK have increased by about 3% a year, but the pay of FTSE 100 executives has grown by around 10% a year. The average FTSE 100 CEO is now paid 126 times as much as the average UK worker, compared to 58 times in 1999.
In principle executive pay should be based on company performance, but the evidence is that there is little or no relationship between them. Indeed, the widespread use of share option incentive schemes, in which executives are rewarded for increases in the value of company shares, has been criticised as an incentive for directors to focus on short term returns rather than long term investment. Various reforms to pay structures to incentivise long-term performance, and benefits to employees and other stakeholders, have been proposed.
Listed companies in the UK with over 250 employees are now required to report on the ‘pay ratios’ between their highest pay rates and their lowest and median pay. There are now calls for this to be extended to privately-owned companies, for more information to be disclosed about higher earners, and for the information to be better disseminated to company employees. Some have proposed a ‘maximum wage’, an upper limit on allowable executive pay, with the money saved redistributed to lower income workers in the company.
The High Pay Centre analysed the first disclosure of UK company pay ratios in 2019-20. Across FTSE 350 companies they found the average CEO was paid 71 times as much as the lower quartile (the pay rate a quarter of the way up the earnings distribution). For the FTSE 100 the ratio was 109:1.
Analysing CEO pay incentives, CIPD and the High Pay Centre find that incentives to deliver shareholder returns are, on average, worth 42 times the value of incentives linked to good employment practices.
CIPD and the High Pay Centre recommend the inclusion of worker representatives on remuneration committees to encourage reform of executive pay.
The Purposeful Company argues for ‘deferred shares’ to replace typical incentive schemes in executive remuneration packages, rewarding long-term company performance.
Autonomy has examined different options for a maximum wage, showing how much money could be redistributed to lower income earners if executive pay were capped and the potential public support for such a policy.
Widening business ownership
The ownership of UK firms is highly concentrated. Over the last fifty years there has been a dramatic decline in the proportion of shares held by ordinary individuals. Share ownership is dominated by institutional investors such as pension funds, asset managers (many now operating passive investment funds), and the wealthy, many based overseas. Since the 1980s successive governments have privatised previously public-owned industries such as rail, water and energy. Few workers hold shares in the firms in which they work and the UK cooperative sector is smaller than in many other countries.
In recent years there has been increasing interest in how ownership can be widened. One way is through public ownership, in which the state takes equity stakes in companies in major sectors, such as energy or rail. Another is by giving ownership stakes in companies to their workers. This can be done either through individual employee share ownership schemes, or through collective worker ownership funds which would both widen the distribution of profits and give workers a say in how businesses are run.
Another route increasingly advocated would be through the creation of a national ‘citizen’s wealth fund’, which would build a portfolio of company shares and distribute a dividend to every citizen.
Common Wealth and the Democracy Collaborative argue that ‘democratic public ownership’ – assets, services, and enterprises held collectively by everyone in a specific geographic area, either directly or through representative structures – must play a crucial role in a more equitable and sustainable economic system.
The IPPR calls for the creation of a publicly-owned ‘Citizen’s Wealth Fund’, built up by the gradual acquisition of equity stocks, which would distribute a dividend either to all citizens or to all younger people. The Friends Provident Foundation makes a similar proposal.
Common Wealth calls for large companies to be required to distribute a small percentage of their shares over time to democratic ownership funds owned and managed by their workers. This would both democratise the governance of firms and give employees a share of company profits.
The ESOP Centre describes the benefits of employee share ownership schemes, under which employees can either own shares in their company directly, or through collectively managed trusts.
Economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman proposed a tax on corporations’ stock shares for all publicly listed companies with headquarters in G20 countries. The authors propose a 0.2% tax on the value of company stocks to raise approximately $180bn each year, levied through share issuance to directly redistribute ownership of companies so that the tax avoids liquidity issues and does not affect business operations.
Cooperatives and social enterprise
The UK has a flourishing economy of cooperatives (companies owned by their workers or consumers) and other forms of social enterprise (non-profit-distributing businesses with social goals). Such businesses have a long history in the UK and around the world, their origins often in mutual self-help initiatives among working class and other marginalised communities. They are characterised by democratic ownership and governance, and often a social mission.
Mutual building societies – which borrowed money from members of a local community to lend to others for housebuilding and purchase – were once a pillar of the UK financial system, but most became commercial banks in the privatisations of the 1980s and 90s. Both in the UK and around the world credit unions have performed a similar role of mutual borrowing and lending within a local or occupational community. Today a new wave of mutual banks is emerging to fill a gap in finance for social good.
Worker-owned cooperatives continue to be the mainstay of the cooperative movement, with the Mondragon network in the Basque country of Spain the single largest group. In the UK John Lewis remains the most famous employee-owned business, though its governance structure is not fully democratic. The Cooperative Group and regional cooperative societies are consumer-owned mutuals. In recent decades a vibrant movement of community enterprises has emerged: socially-owned businesses committed to advancing social and employment goals, often in low-income areas.
Cooperatives UK’s annual survey of the cooperative sector found that in 2020 the UK’s 7000 independent co-ops employed nearly 250,000 people with a combined annual turnover of £38 bn (and rising). 14 million people are members of consumer or worker coops.
Power to Change profiles the wide variety of community businesses in England. Over 11,000 businesses have a combined turnover of nearly £1bn a year, over 37,000 paid staff and nearly 150,000 volunteers.
Profiling a number of case studies, CLES argues that locally-owned and socially-minded enterprises are more likely to employ, buy and invest locally, so should form the foundation of ‘community wealth building’ strategies in local economies.
The Mondragon Corporation in the Basque region of Spain is the largest and most advanced cooperative economy in the world, employing over 81,000 worker-owners in 96 separate, self-governing cooperative businesses.
The New Economics Foundation’s Change the Rules platform showcases inspiring enterprises across the UK, from community businesses and employee-owned cooperatives to credit unions and regional co-operative banks.
The Democracy Collaborative in the US profiles ‘mission-led employee-owned firms’, whose ownership and purpose-driven goals embody a powerful model of enterprise for an economy of environmental sustainability and social equity.