In his 1990 book, Creative Work: The Constructive Role of Business in Transforming Society, Stanford’s Willis Harman wrote, “Business, the motor of our society, has the opportunity to be the new creative force on the planet, a force which could contribute to the well-being of many… the modern corporation is as adaptable an organizational form as has ever been invented, so that in a time of fundamental change it may be expected to be on the cutting edge.”
Professor, researcher, and author of Appreciative Inquiry, David Cooperrider says Harman was one of his early mentors. At a conference last year, Cooperrider provided powerful evidence to showing “business can be a creative force for positive changes in our world“.
This month Fortune magazine published their annual “Change the World” list. The 56 companies on this year’s list had revenues of $1 billion or more and were chosen for measurable social impact, business results, and degree of innovation. The researchers found, “there is ample evidence to suggest that companies that focus on long-term sustainability outperform those with a shorter-term outlook. Institutional investors are getting the message too.”
One of the top companies on the list is DSM, a Dutch nutrition and materials company. “This former chemical company went ‘green’ and its stock took off…DSM is in the business of improving the planet and the lives of the people on it.” When CEO, Feike Sijbesman, took over a decade ago he “branded DSM’s playbook: People. Planet. Profit.” He overhauled the company by swapping unsustainable businesses for more sustainable ones. The company’s stock is up 61% since he took over and “profits have recently soared.”
Shortly after Sijbesman became CEO DSM had just begun a major partnership with the World Food Programme when the 2008 financial crisis hit. “At the annual shareholders’ meeting in 2010, one man questioned the resources DSM had dedicated to helping WFP. Sijbesma was appalled; many of WFP’s donors had already slashed their contributions, while needs had grown. He refused to spend a penny less on the work. After he said so, applause broke out, and one woman in the audience stood and cheered, ‘That’s the kind of company I want to invest in!'”
This example and Fortune’s annual Change the World list is very closely aligned with the research reported in Good Company: Business Success in the Worthiness Era. “When we compared pairs of Fortune 100 companies within the same industry, we found that those with higher scores on the Good Company Index outperformed their peers in the stock market over periods of one, three, and five years.”
That’s also what the researchers behind Firms of Endearment: How World Class Companies Profit from Passion and Purpose found. These companies outperformed Jim Collins’ Good to Great companies by ratios as high as 3 to 1 by “aligning the interests of all in such a way that no stakeholder group (customers, employees, suppliers, communities, and shareholders) gains at the expense of other stakeholder groups; rather, they all prosper together.”
Mark Kramer, coauthor of Creating Shared Value (with Harvard’s Michael Porter), and Justin Bakule are the researchers working with Fortune to build the annual Change the World list. They conclude, “as the bar for social impact and business value gets raised, we believe that each iteration of the Change the World list gets stronger with well-established and new companies alike proving that purpose and profit can go hand in hand. And we think that is a good sign because, despite today’s breathless headlines, businesses are making real change in the world: reducing greenhouse gases, increasing economic opportunity, and promoting better health.”