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Should business have a purpose?

Business is not separate from society.

Photograph: Getty Images

In February the Public Services (Social Value) Act came into force. The Act very simply requires public authorities to procure services in a way that generates social value. This was a piece of Tory legislation (gasp), so well done to Chris White on seeing his private members bill through to the end.

Social Value seems a long way away from the capitalism of the 1970s and 80s when Milton Friedman famously wrote in his book Capitalism and Freedom: "there is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud."

This is often condensed into the “business of business is business” quote. This finds clear resonance in the UK Companies Act where the goal of business is to maximise profit for shareholders.

Apologists for Abstract Expressionism in New York in the early 20th Century, Alfred Barr and Clement Greenberg, made strenuous claims that painting was about surface and colour and nothing else, getting rid of the difficulties of subject matter. Like those art critics, doesn’t Friedman’s abstract view strip business activity of all sense of production, all politics and all purpose, leaving it to do its own thing and have no particular social relevance? Such commentary allows for a discussion of business in the absence of any knowledge of what they actually do and what impacts they may have.

Isn’t it just very convenient to isolate business from society when society isn’t very happy with it and is losing a strongly-held faith in the world of business? 

The Edelman Trust Barometer for 2013, which surveyed over “31,000 respondents in 26 markets around the world and measured their trust in institutions, industries and leaders”, opens with the words:

“The 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer demonstrates a serious crisis of confidence in leaders of both business and government.”

The Barometer shows that whilst trust in institutions including businesses rising modestly, the quality of that trust is feeble: the respondent’s category for “Trust a great deal” is at 16 per cent in government and 17 per cent in business and media.

This is pretty lamentable. Business is not separate from society; it is a social activity, literally being busy. To make this clear, the now well-worn quote of Bjorn Stigson, when president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, that “businesses do not succeed in societies that fail”, needs to be read alongside the Kofi Anan comment that it is the absence not the presence of business that has condemned the much of the world to poverty. 

We have started to see the emergence of a new sense of entrepreneurship which is increasingly called responsible capitalism in the shape of businesses and social enterprises that combine a sense of social or environmental purpose with profit. We can see this in the Social Value Act. How long, we might wonder, before it is common practice for all organisations to think about the social value they create. Would then the Companies Act, instead of enshrining the purpose of business to be profit maximisation whilst nominally nodding at the needs of society and the environment, in fact require businesses to have a purpose in society and, in fulfilling that purpose, they should of course make a profit. 

That might make people trust businesses more; it might make people feel that instead of being self-serving, businesses are in fact part of society.

Richard Spencer is Head of Sustainability at ICAEW.