Planet before profits: UBC Sauder conference explores how social good is the new bottom line for businesses

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Kate White is the Academic Director of the Peter P. Dhillon Centre for Business Ethics at UBC Sauder.

Posted 2019-10-02

On September 20, 2019, the Peter P. Dhillon Centre for Business Ethics at UBC Sauder held a conference to discuss how businesses can become a vehicle for social good and generate value beyond profits.

The conference took place amidst the wider context of unprecedented events: top U.S. CEOs issued a statement at the Business Roundtable, saying the purpose of a corporation was no longer to advance the interests of shareholders, but also to protect the environment. This signals a break from decades-old orthodoxy that pinned maximization of profits at the top of the business agenda. The conference was also just days before the global climate strike to compel world leaders to act and combat global warming.

Professor Kate White, academic director at the Peter P. Dhillon Centre for Business Ethics, said the event highlighted the pressing need to spur social impact through multiple channels. 

"Issues around sustainability and social impact need urgent and long-lasting commitments.  It needs to be tackled from multiple angles — politics is one of them, and business is certainly another," said White. 

"We need businesses to step up in ways that have a facilitator effect — an effect that gives back rather than just takes away."


Environmental considerations now impossible to ignore

Amongst the speakers at the conference was Brandi Halls, brand director for Lush Cosmetics’ North America operations. For her, topics of ethical practices and sustainability making it into boardrooms was not news — at Lush, sustainability is a founding principle.  

Halls said it's now impossible for organizations to ignore their role in protecting the environment. 

"We're going to continue to see businesses starting to hold each other accountable, which is something that I don't think has been done enough. We'll see them learning from and striving to be like businesses who are doing great, and also recognizing ones that aren't moving fast enough," said Halls. 

"I believe businesses working towards social good is going to become a norm."

During its early years, Lush was seen as an outlier for its activist approach to aligning its business activities with care for the environment. But Halls said this trend is becoming more mainstream, and the next generation of scholars have a big role to play in setting the environment agenda for businesses. 

"I think students entering the space should be cognizant and aware of how and why they are gravitating towards certain brands or companies."

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Brandi Halls, brand director for Lush Cosmetics, says businesses working towards social good will become ever-more mainstream.


'UBC Sauder encourages us to consider business impact'

Rishad Habib is one such student who represents the future of scholarship in the field. A recipient of the Business for Social Good grant, Habib is pursuing a PhD in marketing and behavioural sciences at UBC Sauder. She studies "ethical consumption" and is trying to understand how companies can influence consumers towards "pro-social" choices. 

"It's a natural progression — and a very synergistic one," said Habib when asked about the trend of businesses gravitating towards socially-responsible policies. "Because the trend is relatively new, we're still trying to navigate this space where businesses are proactively trying to play a role in uplifting the environment."

Habib said while change within the industry is slow and steady, her professors at UBC Sauder are readying her with knowledge and tools so she can use her research to affect real change. 

"UBC Sauder encourages us to consider business impact and how it can shape decisions at the levels of governments, NGOs and even for-profit organizations."

In particular, she credits Professors Kate White and Karl Aquino for helping her frame her research questions and refine ideas. 


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Rishad Habib, a PhD candidate at UBC Sauder, said professors at UBC Sauder inspire her to think of how business activities can shape policies at the level of governments and NGOs. 


'Voting with the dollar'

Habib is optimistic about businesses and their promises of delivering value for society. She also believes social good and bottom line are inextricably linked to one another. 

"If corporations showcase themselves as involved in the community, as caring about people and caring about their consumers, that will become part of their brand identity and will resonate with people more," said Habib. 

She also added that customers are playing a part by "voting with the dollar" — spending money on businesses whose values resonate with theirs. And this is putting the onus on businesses to respond by generating value for consumers and the community at large. 

"If I support companies that do good, then I'm effectively helping to move things in that direction. And as consumers step up their demand, brands and companies are hearing and responding to their demands," said Habib.

"It could be the most effective way to get our voices out there."


The conference — formally titled ‘Behavioural Insights into Business for Social Good’ — brought together PhD candidates, professors and industry practitioners across North America at the forefront of implementing business initiatives that inspire social impact and sustainable consumer behaviour. Amongst other speakers at the event were Robert Cialdini, Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University and author of the New York Times bestseller "Influence: Science and Practice"; Sankar Sen, Professor at the Zicklin School of Business; Shona McGlashan, vice president of governance at Vancity; Carol Liao, assistant professor at UBC's Allard School of Law; and James Tansey, Executive Director of Centre for Social Innovation & Impact Investing at UBC Sauder.