Richard Branson typifies what is wrong with the world and especially people with too much money and too much time on their hands. This guy is a self-made billionaire, and good on him. However, now that he’s made his money by using the Earth’s resources, he’s all of a sudden grown a conscience. Isn’t it amazing what money does to your psyche. I bet when he was 16 years old sitting in his parent’s garage, dreaming of making it big, if someone had told him to stop what he’s doing because he’s going to kill the planet or to think of those poor sods in Africa, what’s the bet he would have laughed at them and told them to bugger off – he has work to do. Today, that same entrepreneur now wants people to not look at his past, but at the future of our planet and the people. We now must feel guilty when we buy things because we should be giving our money to those less fortunate in the world, you know, who live on less than $2 a day. Note that he doesn’t go after the governments of those countries who usually are sucking the country dry of the money – no, us evil Westerners need to do more to help them out. Well Mr Branson, how about you start with yourself. You have tentacles all over the world, opening new ventures where they’re going to be profitable. Why not just open free businesses in Africa? How’s that for social entrepreneurship? Go fly planes in the sub-Saharan African countries for the poor….for free. What’s wrong? Don’t you want to help the poor out? And then he has the audacity to preach about pollution! Well, I guess those fumes out the backsides of his planes are water vapour then? And how about him sending people into outer space for fun? I guess those rockets don’t pollute – or do they just pollute the good stuff? Do as I say, not as I do – the crazy liberals are running free again. Time to put them back in their cages….or on their private islands.
When entrepreneurs ask me if I have a single message which will help them, I say: doing good can help improve your prospects, your proﬁts and your business – and can change the world.
I believe that business can be a force for good, and that by doing the right thing it will prosper. In other words, doing good is good for business.
So far business, or capitalism, for the most part, has been a means of making money. The means by which that money was made have not been as important as the end result. One of the most devastating theories of the 1970s was that – no matter what it took – the primary purpose of business was to maximise value for shareholders. This led to a variety of social ills where businesses polluted, discarded employees at the drop of a hat or created unsustainable short-term gains.
Capitalism has created economic growth and brought many wonderful beneﬁts but this has come at a cost not reﬂected in the balance sheet. The focus on proﬁt has caused signiﬁcant negative, unintended consequences.
Business as usual is wrecking our planet. Resources are being used up. Air, sea and land are heavily polluted. The poor are getting poorer. Many are dying of starvation, or because they cannot afford life-saving medicine. Nearly half of the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day and two out of three of these people have no access to drinking water.
The short-term focus on proﬁt has driven most businesses to forget about their important long-term role in taking care of people and the planet. All over the world people are demanding that business as usual changes – as we’ve seen in the Occupy movement.
One of the great beneﬁts of information technology is that people are now directly connected to those suffering as a result of economic unfairness and are no longer prepared to accept it.
We must work hard to change all this. I have always looked on my businesses not just as money-making machines, but as adventures that can, I hope, make people better off. But neither Virgin nor many other companies have been doing anywhere near enough to stop the downward spiral: in many cases, as demonstrated by the recent ﬁnancial crises, we have actually been accelerating the descent.
My new book Screw Business as Usual (Virgin £12.99) tells the story of a seven-year journey. When it began, I thought I was doing reasonably well as an entrepreneur and as a caring human being. My business life was running smoothly and my personal life was very happy, good people were running each of Virgin’s 300 companies worldwide and things were running so smoothly that I felt comfortable spending more time on my beloved island of Necker.
But as I grew older it seemed that I was not making a big enough difference, particularly given my incredible good fortune, and I realised that I hadn’t even begun to scratch the surface of what needed to be done to help ensure the survival of the planet. I was also very aware that there was too much poverty in the world.
I always wanted Virgin to be a strong role model of social entrepreneurship, but now I knew we would have to do more to help drive change and get everyone in all our businesses to be part of it. I decided to start committing most of my time to work with my foundation, Virgin Unite, to see how we could use our skills across Virgin Group to help create lasting, entrepreneurial approaches to some of these devastating issues.
I run Virgin Unite just as I would any other business, making sure that our investments have the best possible social and environmental return. Money is often the least important bit – what matters is people ﬁguring out ways to use the assets of their businesses to drive not only proﬁts but a better world.
We must change the way we do business. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to acquire wealth must play a role in looking at how we use those means to make the world a far better place.
Probably the greatest frontier is in creating businesses that protect and harness our natural resources – and reduce our carbon output – one of the biggest entrepreneurial opportunities of our lifetimes. It is also important that people in business recognise that long-term shareholder value is more likely to be created by companies that value their employees, act as good environmental stewards and think long term.
The global tracking company FTSE concluded: “Companies that consistently manage and measure their responsible business activities outperformed their FTSE 350 peers on total shareholder return in seven out of the last eight years.”
Doing good means not polluting, and undoing the pollution of the past couple of centuries. It means restoring harmony with nature and helping those less fortunate to build a way of earning a living and living with dignity. And it means reinventing how we live to create a far more balanced, healthy and peaceful world.
Capitalism should operate in such a socially responsible way that it will give poor people economic freedom and that new opportunities for entrepreneurship arise.
I wrote the book for a new wave of entrepreneurs – and existing business people – who are transforming their organisations to do more to help people and the planet. This reﬂects a vibrant and very marked sea change from the way business always used to be done, when ﬁnancial proﬁt was the only driving force.
Businesses that do well while doing good will thrive in the coming decades. Those that continue with “business as usual”, focused solely on proﬁt maximisation, won’t be around for long – and won’t deserve to be.