ESG and consumer activism: where purpose meets profit

There’s a big shift happening in our rapidly evolving business landscape. The relentless pursuit of profit, once the prime objective that guides corporate strategy, is now starting to align with a deeper, more profound purpose. The surge in consumer activism and the rising influence of ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) criteria has created a pivotal moment.

As we navigate through this transformation, it’s becoming clear that financial success and ethical business practices are not mutually exclusive, but can be intertwined, where each step of responsible action leads to a leap in profitability.

Let’s explore how some businesses are successfully redefining their paths to move beyond the restrictions of traditional corporate goals to embrace a future where purpose and profit co-exist in a mutually beneficial environment.

The days of viewing corporate responsibility as diligently following regulations or performing a vanity side project have become resigned to history. We’re entering into an era where sustainability, social conscience and ethical governance are influencing business decisions, and an age where consumers’ concerns aren’t just heard and filed by a complaints department but are, instead, instrumental in shaping corporate strategy.

The rise of ESG criteria

In the heart of all of this lies the concept of ESG criteria: the standards that define the ethical and sustainable practices of businesses. ESG isn’t just a faddish boardroom buzzword – it’s a guide towards a future where responsibility and profitability are interlocked.

In the UK, for example, the adoption of ESG criteria is more than a trend… it’s a paradigm shift. Investors are increasingly channeling their funds into companies that demonstrate a commitment to these purpose-led principles. And this shift isn’t just a passing nod to moral values – it’s a strategic move that recognises that sustainable practices are directly linked to long-term profitability and mitigating risk.

Take, for instance, Scottish Power’s renewable energy arm Scottish Power Renewables. By focusing on sustainable energy production, the company isn’t just contributing to environmental preservation; it’s also tapping into a growing market of eco-conscious consumers and investors. This strategic adoption of ESG criteria has not only bolstered its reputation but has also led to tangible financial gains for Scottish Power, showing that ethical considerations and economic success are not at odds.

Companies that prioritise social welfare and equitable governance, like Patagonia and Ben and Jerry’s, are also finding themselves at an advantage, building stronger, more loyal customer bases and workforces, which in turn drive innovation and profitability. That’s a clear indicator that in this marketplace, companies that thrive are the ones that recognise the value of embracing ESG into their business model.

Consumer activism: a catalyst for change

The rise of consumer activism is another powerful force redefining the business landscape in the UK. In an age where information is at everyone’s fingertips, consumers are more informed and empowered than ever before. They are not just passive buyers; they’re active participants who demand transparency, ethics, and sustainability from the brands they support.

This new breed of consumers don’t shy away from holding companies accountable. Through social media campaigns, organised boycotts and advocacy, they are forcing businesses to reconsider their practices and align with societal values. Rather than see this as a challenge, some businesses have recognised that an opportunity has presented itself to forge stronger, more authentic connections with their audience.

A example of an ESG pivot is the activity of fast-food chain Chipotle, who built their reputation by serving fresh and tasty Mexican food. However, a large body of their consumers urged them to recognise the environmental and ethical problems associated with the food industry’s supply chain. This led to a focus on ethically sourced ingredients, animal welfare and community engagement. Chipotle now sources its ingredients responsibly, uses humanely farmed meats and stands in opposition to industrial farming practices. They also prioritise local farmers and support sustainable agricultural initiatives. Their commitment to ESG has earned them a loyal following among consumers who value ethical and sustainable food choices. By raising awareness about issues in the food ecosystem, they’ve inspired other restaurants to adopt more responsible practices, positioning Chipotle as an influential industry leader.

Another prominent pivot came from drinks giant Diageo, who have been proactive in incorporating ESG criteria into their operations, including responsible sourcing, sustainable water usage and promotion of moderate alcohol consumption. They’ve also made commitments to reduce carbon emissions and increase the recyclability of their packaging. For instance, their whiskey brand Johnnie Walker will soon launch the first ever 100% plastic-free paper-based spirits bottle, made entirely from sustainably sourced wood.

New challenger brands whose purpose-led propositions have also made great strides in the market, such as Tony’s Chocolonely, who are committed to paying farmers in West Africa a living wage and investing in community development projects; Who Gives A Crap, a toilet roll brand who donate funds to build toilets in developing countries for every pack of toilet paper they sell, driving sales but also raising awareness about global sanitation issues; and Finisterre, a surf-focussed apparel brand who champion sustainability and ocean conservation, use recycled and ocean-derived materials in their products and run beach clean-ups.

In all of this activity, the rise of social media and its role in amplifying consumer voices is playing a huge part. Platforms like Twitter (now X) and Instagram have become battlegrounds where consumer opinions will significantly impact a company’s reputation. Smart businesses are leveraging these platforms not just for damage control, but as proactive tools to engage with and learn from their consumers, integrating their feedback into business strategies to improve their products and services.

When purpose and profit combine

This coming together of purpose and profit is not just misty-eyed idealism – it’s a tangible reality unfolding across the UK’s business landscape, and a testament to the fact that ethical business practices and financial success aren’t just compatible concepts, but can be mutually reinforcing.

Companies that have embraced ESG principles and responded to consumer activism are discovering that these strategies do more than just boost their moral standing – they also drive profitability.

A commitment to sustainability, for example, opens doors to new markets and audiences, bringing a competitive edge in a world where consumers are increasingly required to make choices based on environmental impact.

Similarly, a focus on social and governance leads to enhanced brand loyalty. Both customers and employees are drawn to companies that demonstrate a commitment to societal values. This translates to higher employee retention rates, lower recruitment costs, and a loyal customer base that are often inspired to advocate for the brand. The financial benefits of such loyalty can be profound, as a loyal customer base translates into repeat business and positive word-of-mouth, two main drivers of long-term profitability.

Also, integrating ESG criteria into business operations can lead to operational efficiencies. Sustainable practices often involve reducing waste and optimising resource use, which can result in significant cost savings. Additionally, companies with robust governance structures are less likely to face legal issues or damage to their reputation, thus avoiding the potential associated financial losses.

The business landscape is full of examples of companies that are successfully harnessing the synergy of purpose and profit. From large corporations to small startups, the trend is clear across the board: businesses that align their strategies with ethical principles don’t just help to shape a better world. They also reap the financial rewards of their actions.


ESG is the future of business

It’s evident that the integration of ESG criteria into business practice is not just a transient trend but a profound shift in corporate ethos and is redefining the definition of success in the modern economy.

The move towards more responsible and sustainable business models is a sign of our changing times. Companies that understand and embrace the shift will position themselves at the forefront of innovation and profitability, and prove that doing good can indeed be good for business.

Looking forward, the trajectory is clear. Businesses that continue to align their goals with societal and environmental values won’t just lead the movement towards creating a better world but will also enjoy the loyalty and support of a consumer base who value their higher purpose.

The future of business is mapped: purpose and profit are no longer competing interests. They’re complementary forces that, when united in practice, can lead to great success and sustainability. The pursuit of profit need not overshadow the importance of making a positive impact on society and the environment.

Read all about it...