Has business suddenly grown a conscience overnight? Sadly, not entirely.

There are certainly some amazing entrepreneurs with successful start-ups built around personal moral crusades. And there are a growing number of impressive leaders driving ethical and sustainable change through big businesses. But, in the main, the reason this is on the agenda for 2020 is a response to a shift in human, not business, attitude and behaviour.


For starters, consumers are beginning to change their approach to shopping. Not everyone is going full eco-warrior overnight, but people are making more conscious decisions around their purchasing and consumption. With the likes of Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion and #WarOnPlastics all hitting the headlines in 2019, people are becoming more conscientious – maybe trying #MeatFreeMonday, or a spot of upcycling (rather than buying new). The chances are that if your product or service is perceived as being less sustainable than your competitors, you will lose out. So in many cases it’s this highly commercial fear that is driving urgent conversations in the boardroom.


Then there’s the rise in people’s desire to work for companies that stand for more than simply making a healthy profit. Employees, particularly Millennials* and Gen Z (who by 2025 will make up 75% of the workforce), are increasingly asking what an organisation is doing to look after the health of society and the planet. And if the answer is nothing (or less than your main competitors), then all that valuable talent could slip through your fingers and go elsewhere. Another pretty important point to add to the business ‘challenges’ agenda for 2020.


If this hasn’t already got your C-suite sitting up and taking notice, then it may be worth looking around at your other stakeholders. Are you part of a supply chain that is coming under increasing ethical scrutiny? Are your shareholders starting to ask more sustainability-driven questions at the AGM? With more and more discussion around the ability of organisations to ‘do well, by doing good’, this is highly likely to crop up somewhere in the coming 12 months (if it hasn’t already).


Getting started on a more ethical and sustainable business path can be pretty daunting, particularly if you’ve been operating for a while. It’s likely that you will need to look at how you do things and plan some significant changes. But rather than being paralysed by fear at the prospect, it’s worth reminding yourself of the benefits (and the risks of inertia). And that is the true commercial definition of ‘unsustainable’, because leave it too late and your business will cease to exist.


To get the conversation started, I recommend this initial exercise. It involves asking two simple, but poignant, questions. Are we doing more harm than good to society? Are we doing more harm than good to the planet?

Start making some lists and discussing how you plan to change for the better.

For many other ideas and exercises to help you along on your ethical and sustainable business journey in 2020, get a copy of The Ethical Business Book.