Big Business Can Change the World


Big Business Can Change the World

If we want to save the environment, we have to stop handing the job over to big charities

For those of us who want to make a difference to the environment and the economy, the tendency can be strong to think that by donating to a big charity we’ve done our bit.

We haven’t, really.

We can actually do the world more good by investing smartly in businesses that work ethically in the first place, especially when it comes to the stewardship of water.

That is what I took away from listening  to last week’s Four Thought on BBC’s Radio 4 (

It was David Russell, Founder and Director of The Social Enterprise describing his ‘Damascus moment’ (my wording, not his) when he realised that working within the not for profit charity sector and shunning the for profit world of business was not the best way, or even any way, to change the world.

We all want to leave the world a better place, but feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the task; and so we give money to worthy organisations whose reason for being is to save the world on our behalf. We give donations in confidence that the charities we donate to are following the right model for putting our donations to effective use. Of course they’ll do that, right? They’re charities.

David Russell challenges that thinking. His work, spanning 15 years in the not for profit sector, brought him to the point where he finally had to acknowledge that the world’s big charities can’t really be relied on to make a difference on our behalf.  And that is because their model is somewhat skewered: in their rush towards short term delivery of funding targets and proving impact, they often show a stark resemblance to the kind of behaviour and ethos associated with our usual (and limited) stereo-type of big business.

It made for some disconcerting listening. One of his strongest images, taken from his own direct experience, was that of charity event organisers in limousines driving swiftly past crowds of people walking in dirt roads on foot – and these being the very people the charity event had been put on to help.

Russell now works for one of the world’s biggest multinationals, supporting its aspiration to be a truly sustainable business. It’s turned out to be an opportunity not only to do good, but to do so on a massive scale and in ways that have the potential to enhance the lives of more than 1 billion people with better hygiene.

‘When done well’, Russell said, ‘the leverage that business has to deliver such impact is second to none’.

The potential for businesses to impact water sustainability

Water  risk is one of the most important challenges the global economy will face over the next decade. Shortages, floods and infrastructure failure are going to be significant threats to the ability of businesses to keep operations running and those threats to business will eventually hit people in their homes and day to day lives.  The business  water-users that are confronting these threats aren’t only looking after their own bottom line; they’re making a difference to the way we value water.

The Global Water Summit to be held on 19-20 April at the Jumeirah Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi recognises that business has changed enormously in the last generation. We invite the heavy water-using industries to join us and support our case that corporate sustainability is not a short term marketing bandwagon. It’s a long term commitment to water.

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