Socially minded businesses hit with government pushback

Last week, Liberal assistant minister to the prime minister Ben Morton took a stand against socially minded business, stating that businesses that focus efforts on social campaigns are simply pandering to activists.

“Businesses should not be seduced by the noisy elites who try to bend business to their narrow viewpoints,” Morton said.

“Yet too often I see corporate Australia succumb or pander to similar pressures from noisy, highly orchestrated campaigns of elites typified by groups such as GetUp or activist shareholders.”

This week, it was Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott who spoke up, noting that she believes businesses need to strike a better balance between social campaigns and economic performance.

According to Westacott, while the Business Council has long advocated for methods economic reform, such as wage growth and higher living standards for all Australians, and supports government initiatives such as proposed company tax cuts, business leaders are largely silent on such issues. 

Westacott notes that Australian CEOs should be expected to speak on both economic issues and social issues. 

“We have travelled to regional Australia with our member CEOs for the past two years, and we know the only virtue people want signalled is how business is making their communities strong by providing jobs, training and opportunities so they can get ahead,” Westacott said in a statement to Inside Retail Weekly.

“For the business community, it’s about getting the balance right. Business is the people who work in a company, its shareholders, its suppliers, its mum-and-dad investors, so they expect CEOs to to speak about economic issues and social issues.”

The value in pandering to ‘the noisy elite’

While many retail leaders don’t necessarily throw their hats into the political ring, there are those who definitely speak up on issues both social and economic.

Lush Australia and New Zealand director Peta Granger told Inside Retail that the bath bomb business is a company built on sustainability and campaigning.

“We believe in standing up for animal welfare, protecting the environment and supporting human rights – and we believe it is our responsibility to do so,” Granger said.

“The values of the founders, energised by the passion of our staff, have always sought to use the business to create the social, environmental and political change that pushes society into a more progressive direction for all.

“We look to have disproportionately positive impact on the world by inventing sustainable products and revolutionising the way people wash and bathe, regenerative and ethical supply chains and using the platform of business to create systemic change on issues we care deeply about.”

However, this doesn’t mean the beauty business doesn’t weigh in on economic issues. Lush ethics director Hilary Jones has previously noted that the business wants to contribute economically back into societies it trades within by being a good employer, trading fairly with suppliers and paying taxes into the collective purse. 

[And according to Granger, the business has/n’t suffered for having its feet on both sides, having grown….]

A Woolworths spokesperson also told Inside Retail that the business supports the Coalition’s proposal for a reduction in corporate tax rates, and will continue to advocate for reforms which benefit its customers, team members and shareholders.

Woolworths also weighs in on social issues, however. For example, the grocery giant recently announced it will create a craft beer made from unsold loaves of bread, Loafer, to tackle food wastage. 

Woolworths, alongside fellow BCA member Coles, has also been a proponent of reducing plastic usage in Australia, having each initiated a countrywide plastic bag ban in their supermarkets. 

Coles noted that its membership allows them to contribute constructively to policy development that will improve the wellbeing of all communities across Australia. 

“Our focus is simple – to sustainably feed all Australians to help them lead healthier, happier lives,” a Coles spokesperson told Inside Retail.

“From food waste to a sustainable food chain, we want to be sure we’re here for another century, creating jobs, supporting our suppliers and making a positive difference in our local communities.”

Sustainable goods marketplace Ecostore chief executive Pablo Kraus said that doing good business and being a profitable business lies in understanding social issues. 

“We live in an era where social issues such as diversity and sustainability should be part of everyday business,” Kraus told Inside Retail.

“More than ever, consumers are looking to buy products from businesses that operate this way. Rightly so, consumers have let their voices be heard loud and clear that they want to purchase goods and services from organisations that are genuinely connected to social issues, and who care.”

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