Businesses: a powerful engine for social change

26 January 2021 by Claude Breton

By Claude Breton, Vice-President, Communications and Corporate Social Responsibility


Something needs to change, and it needs to change now. This is often the first thought that comes to mind when we’re faced with issues that are contrary to our values. Think environmental issues, discrimination, or even poverty.

By putting small concrete actions in place – or even larger, long-term ones – we have the power to change the course of things. Whether we get involved individually, as a family, or as a group, the money, time, or expertise we give can have a significant positive impact on the world around us.

In this regard, businesses are putting forth increasingly interesting perspectives aimed at those who want to make their mark in a meaningful way. There are a large number of elements surrounding the ESG wave, and a wide range of intriguing environmental, social, and governance issues in which entrepreneurs are actively engaged around the world.

The economic prosperity of companies goes beyond their level of awareness, or the evolution of their vision or mission. This ESG wave is also driven by the consumer, who increasingly realizes that “buying is voting". That’s why they’ll decide to get involved with a cause and support brands and businesses that align with their values.

So how can companies make a real difference?

Take action on climate change today

Reduce environmental impact

The business world is taking strides to reduce its environmental impact. Although too often accused of inaction, in recent years, the organizations surrounding the United Nations (UN) have succeeded in getting leaders of private companies more involved. Developing the detailed plans needed to reduce our carbon footprint entails dealing with a number of operational difficulties. 

Luckily, the corporate skepticism we saw a few years ago is increasingly becoming a thing of the past as the need for change continues to resonate. First and foremost, employees of organizations of all sizes are rallying together and mobilizing quickly to find ways to get involved in the movement. 

« ESG is an evolution, not a revolution.

And there is every reason to be optimistic because entrepreneurs hate failure. »

Risk managers, accountants, communicators and other professionals who possess the skills and reflexes to do things differently are now being hired across the globe. While they may not be broadcasting it loudly, change is happening. 

More than ever, two myths are being debunked: that international organizations like the United Nations are powerless, and that the private sector is only looking to make good numbers. In both cases, we’re seeing greater engagement in the cause.

Passing the social values ​​test

Companies and entrepreneurs regularly contribute to many great causes in various domains: from university advancement, to scientific research, and other fields that they are passionate about. This philanthropic culture has a such a strong foundation because we understand the role the community needs to play in solving the social issues that have been outlined by the UN in the 17 sustainable development goals. However, these issues cannot be tackled by governments alone due to the sheer magnitude of the challenge they represent. This is why we truly value the importance of tackling issues together.

A concrete example of philanthropic value being fully assumed was given to me by the President and Chief Executive Officer of National Bank, Louis Vachon. A few years ago, National Bank established that it would remain a generalist donor so that donations would be widely distributed into society, helping to ensure the survival of small, lesser-known organizations that stand apart from the larger, more influential ones. As a result, this meant less public recognition for the Bank’s efforts. While concentrating donations in the same sector makes a larger impression and places the company amongst the ranks of great benefactors, we decided to make the opposite decision. To be everywhere and nowhere at the same time to put value ​​first. Generalist donors still have an extremely important role to play, and this is essential when it comes to how things function at the top.

Another myth debunked: corporate philanthropy has its own interests at heart. This may sometimes be the case, but now more than ever it’s more about personal and leadership values, ​​as well as the deep need to serve the community.

Contributing to social cohesion

Whether it’s consumer data, respect for human rights in supply chains, or other aspects that affect the way our leaders manage their companies, their governance is bound to respond to the call of civil society: to tackle things like hate speech and intolerance, to protect the privacy of citizens, and more.

These are elements that directly affect companies’ ESG positioning. Having ongoing discussions with investors and rating agencies, and by asking what is being done to contribute to the public good is key. This kind of dynamic is well underway – assessing the surveys and answering the difficult questions that make companies take a look at themselves in relation to John F. Kennedy’s adage: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.

Another myth debunked: companies don’t play a role in reducing social tensions, or contributing to the general smooth running of our society. False. Their role is key, especially as they begin to understand it more and more. 

Putting the wheels in motion

Companies will continue being called upon to make impactful contributions to helping resolve various social issues, including those you watch and engage with. Businesses and professionals wanting to get more involved and make their own contribution shouldn’t hesitate to take part in the movement. While ESG is still in its infancy, it will increasingly affect organizations in various sectors. So why not jump on board?

The business world is full of opportunities to evolve – for all those who believe in nuance (not everything is black and white), in dialogue (change is never one-sided), in time (deep change is in demand) and people (companies are human, above all!).

ESG is an evolution, not a revolution. And there is every reason to be optimistic because entrepreneurs hate failure.

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