Should business have a purpose?

Business is not separate from society.

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.

Photograph: Getty Images
Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.