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Guest Post by Ruth Dearnley

(Influence Global)

If you’re reading this, the chances are you – like me – are already sold on the idea of supporting the most ethical businesses through your everyday purchases. We resolutely believe that profit should not come at the expense of people and planet – and we know that our shopping makes a difference.

But how can purpose-driven businesses be sure they are achieving the positive social and environmental change outcomes that we all want?

And in turn, if they are not certain – do we need to question their ‘ethical’ credentials?

Ethical products are booming right now. Our Instagram feed is full of stainless steel straws, bamboo toothbrushes and organic, fairly traded blankets that just weren’t there a few years ago! It is fantastic to see. But as the industry grows, it can be harder to tell which companies are brand building by jumping on the ‘ethical trend’ and which really mean it.

The time is right to move beyond petitioning companies to ‘do something’ and really push businesses to uphold the values that we do. Telling us about their passion and commitment is one thing – but to truly get our trust in their ethical credentials, we should be able to see the impact that they are making.

Here are a few things businesses should be doing if they want to make meaningful, sustainable change.Know the change they want to make

Sounds simple enough, but you’d be surprised by the number of businesses (and not-for-profits for that matter) that when asked tell me what they do, not what they want to achieve. Without this clarity, they will be unable to benchmark their progress towards achieving their goal. So how can they know if they are having a positive impact?

It doesn’t have to be complicated. But it does have to articulate the end goal. “We carbon offset” doesn’t cut it, but “we want to reduce global carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2020”, is getting there. This means the business can start setting its own incremental milestone targets that it needs to hit (of which 100 per cent carbon offsetting may be one of them) in order to reach their desired goal and make a positive difference in the world.

In doing so, this also helps the company make lasting commitments that become embedded into the values and principles of the organisation.Follow the leaders

As shoppers, we have trusted sources that help us make purchasing decisions. Ethical certification labelling has long been the ‘on the shelf’ guide for picking out the item that does the least harm to the planet, or pays the fairest wage to workers. Even as ‘competing’ logos have appeared we have had the likes of The Good Shopping Guide, to help us weigh up which are the most credible or do more on the issues that matter most to us. From our chocolate to our banking, we know how to ‘buy better’.

Companies are no different. But in order to maintain a commercial edge, some try to do it all themselves. Thankfully, I think this mentality is gradually shifting because the fact is, most companies will never be the experts on ‘ethical’ issues.

It’s the established international development agencies that have worked with local communities for decades that know what interventions will best end poverty and exploitation in cocoa-growing communities in Cote d’Ivoire. Just like animal welfare agencies understand the least harmful and most ‘humane’ way to tend to and house livestock, and environmental organisations can tell companies exactly how they can have the greatest impact on their greenhouse emissions.

Companies need to work with them.Set measurable targets

A companies’ measures and metrics doesn’t make for the most interesting reading – but it is critical. Their social change outcomes should be as central in their planning as their turnover. (Ideally. We’ve got a long way to go before that is the reality for most).

An end goal is aspirational at best without a clear trajectory of how to get there. I’ve worked with a variety of organisations to rethink the strategy and theory of change that will get them to their goals in the most efficient and effective way. Having clear, calculated timelines and indicators of progress at every step makes all the difference.Be transparent about progress

We are smarter than the polished, over simplified stories that companies currently tell us. We know that buying one t-shirt is not going to send a girl to school, and that our new moisturiser isn’t really saving someone’s sight!

I want to hear the nitty gritty details of how they will actually do it – and I want to hear about the incremental progress and steps along the way. Perhaps most of all, I want to hear what went wrong. Because things do and they will.

A company that can acknowledge failure, can fail quickly and move on. That’s far preferable than a company that denies it, or doesn’t even realise anything is going wrong because they are not measuring their progress.

That’s not the end, but it would be a great start. Business is transforming and it is wonderful to see how far ethical business thinking has come in the last decade alone. Let’s hope it lasts. I’m pretty sure the companies that adopt these changes will.

Ruth Dearnley is the Managing Director of Influence Global, a collaborative consultancy working not-for-profits, social enterprises and purpose-driven businesses to create social change. She is passionate about the small things we can all do to make a more just world.

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