Business with purpose: creating leaders for social change

As the University of Edinburgh Business School’s 100th anniversary celebrations draw to a close, we asked the school’s staff, students and alumnus Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever, to share their different perspectives on how the business sector can be a force for social good.

Images of experts from the Business School
Our panel: Wendy Loretto (left), Alan Jope, Sarah Ivory, Sophie Mary and Moomal Unar (bottom)

“Being socially responsible is embedded in our values"

Wendy Loretto, Dean of the Business School and Professor of Organisational Behaviour

“Business schools are crucial in helping to drive social change in business. We produce future leaders. It’s our responsibility to ensure these leaders will drive improvements in equality, fairness and sustainability, in all its dimensions.

Here at the University of Edinburgh Business School, we are particularly proud of the international reach of our students, staff and alumni. For example, we currently have students of multiple nationalities. Working together, they bring various world perspectives to tackling both global and local challenges. This can be exemplified through our annual MakeYourMark event, which sees teams of undergraduate students work together with experts over a weekend to create a social enterprise.

We’re also proud of our focus on inclusion – working to ensure those who come from less financially advantaged circumstances can participate in, for example, international student trips such as the visit to India to study the cotton trade from field to high fashion.

Being socially responsible is embedded in our values and manifests itself through what and how we teach as well as through our research. Our research promotes social change in business. Recent highlights include: improving financial wellbeing, developing models of socially responsible leadership, promoting ethical accounting practices, or striving for greater diversity in employment.”

“Brands with purpose grow faster”

Alan Jope, BA Com (Hons) Business 1985, CEO at Unilever

To mark the University of Edinburgh Business School’s 100th anniversary, Unilever CEO Alan Jope took part in a virtual event last month where he answered questions from the School’s students and alumni on a range of topics including how business has a role to play to address sustainability, diversity and inequality. Here’s some of what he had to say:

“We believe that the world faces fundamentally two big problems, and those are climate change and inequality. There is a prevailing view that the role of business is to make profit and at Unilever we don’t agree with that. We believe in a multi-stakeholder model and that if we take care of our employees, our consumers and our customers, and if we treat our business partners with respect and do it with care in the societies that we operate in and the planet that we live in, as a by-product our shareholders will be rewarded.

It’s a better business model. Brands with purpose grow faster. Our brands that operate on an explicit platform that is doing something for society or the planet are dramatically outperforming the brands in our portfolio that don’t have that sense of mission or purpose. We also believe that we have saved about €900m by sourcing sustainable materials. It drives brand preference, it saves money, it creates innovation, it creates more trust and of course it's a magnet for talent.

The reason why other companies don’t do this is they see it as a trade-off. They see it as: “either I’m financially responsible or I carry on responsibly for the planet” and if you carry that paradigm, it’s massively inhibiting but we believe in a multi-stakeholder system where if you’re acting responsibly, the shareholder will be well rewarded. The proof in the pudding is that we’re attracting better and more investment by being a responsible and sustainable business.”

More from Alan

To hear more from Alan, including on gender diversity, racial equality and tips for new graduates, you can watch a recording from the event online:

In Discussion with Alan Jope - video

“I believe this generation can bring along change, especially if it is educated to do so”

Sophie Mary, MSc Marketing 2019-2020

“It is a common belief that marketeers are the bad guys, the ones who created social anxieties and complexes just for the sake of making more profit. Whilst there is some truth to that statement, I do strongly believe that many of us are now actively trying to do good.

Throughout this year, I have had the opportunity to develop funding communications for a non-profit (Edinburgh Science), study campaigns about body positivity and cultural inclusivity, examine adverts to criticise the ethics of their representations, and learn more about how to market for a good cause (from Social Bite).

Not only that, but I have witnessed such growth in the attitude of my peers: I have gladly followed the creation of an extra-curricular study group designed specifically to talk about the ethical issues of marketing and how to solve them, led by incredibly clever students hungry for change. In all the optimism of my youth, I therefore believe that this generation can bring along change, especially if it is educated to do so.

As marketeers, our responsibility is representation: we must actively strive to challenge traditional standards and give a voice to everyone, and emphasise positivity and self-care rather than fear and anxiety as purchase drivers. Customers are not numbers in never-ending lists, they are the whole force that should drive marketeers in their decisions. We are given an incredible platform to do good at a global level: let's own up to the task.”

“We aim for impact across different levels”

Sarah Ivory, Director of the Centre for Business, Climate Change and Sustainability

“What would a just, sustainable, prosperous society look like? We grapple with such ideas daily in the Business School’s Centre for Business, Climate Change and Sustainability (CBCCS).

We aim for impact across different levels. We see impact at institutional levels, when Dr Cochran convenes a workshop alongside the UN Secretary General’s Summit to align financial flows to sustainable impacts, when Dr Taschini reports to the Central Bank on integrating climate factors into standard macroeconomic models, when Professor Amaeshi envisions Africapitalism, or Dr Brander contributes to the revision of ISO 14064-1 for corporate greenhouse gas (GHG) accounting.

We see impact at the technology level when Dr Liang Xi helps establish the first open access carbon capture and utilisation technology testing platform in China, or at company level when Dr Ivory advises large corporates on how to scale sustainability to their strategic core.

At the community level Dr Kaesehage helps Mexican communities adapt to extreme floods and droughts, and Dr Kwon works to disseminate best practices among Mumbai Community Mental Health NGOs.

CBCCS is more than a research centre. We are an impact centre with a mission to develop the communities, organisations, and society we will be proud to hand over to the next generation.”

“Much can be achieved by fostering a deeper understanding of the responsibilities we as employees have towards the society around us”

Moomal Unar, MSc Human Resource Management 2019-2020

In the wake of the current century, as Mark Kramer (Co-founder of mission-driven consulting firm FSG) puts it, social change has become part of the competitive equation for businesses. However, whilst taking on pro-bono projects with the corporate social responsibility (CSR) mindset impacts social and economic wellbeing of a society; it is not all about the macro level. Much can be achieved by fostering a deeper understanding of the responsibilities we as employees have towards the society around us. Businesses can make that difference by creating an internal culture that supports, facilitates and acknowledges efforts made and initiatives taken by individuals that positively impact the people around us.

“The University of Edinburgh Business School fosters an ambience of creativity, collaboration and entrepreneurship. Amongst many opportunities, my time working as a broadcaster at the University’s student radio station is one to remember; conducting shows that centred around being the best version of oneself by being more mindful, more productive and thus embarking upon a personal transformation journey to being better individuals who are willing to contribute to those who surround us. We also undertook initiatives to ensure the mental and physical wellbeing of our cohort, currently dispersed across continents due to Covid restrictions.

Businesses too must act on their responsibility by making it a strategic priority to create an internal collaborative culture and fostering an innovative mindset with a deep-set realisation of one’s duty of care to those around us and to the society as a whole; this I believe is a promising way to go forward.”

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Related links

University of Edinburgh Business School

 In Discussion with Alan Jope - video


Sustainable Fashion: Focus India

Centre for Business, Climate Change and Sustainability