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The value and values of business in the global marketplace

Update from Wilton Park CEO Tom Cargill, 12 July 2021

If you have read our latest update on Wilton Park’s work with faith-based organisations you won’t be surprised that a discussion of values sits at the heart of much of our work. This is not an abstract, academic debate.

There is a growing struggle for hearts and minds over the values that should govern global public, and even private, life. This debate is playing out as much within societies as it is between aspiring global players

In most, if not all democracies much is often made of the difference between business, government and civil society when it comes to values. Business is too often characterised as venal and self-interested, only concerned with profit at the expense of communities and the environment. However, increasingly the most successful businesses and businesspeople recognise how important values are to making profit over the long term. Indeed, sustainability itself is driving much value-led behaviour on issues like climate change.

Having worked now in and alongside government,  private sector and not for profit organisations, my experience is that there’s often a fundamental misunderstanding in the varying motivations driving behaviours amongst those in different fields of professional life. For those in civil society, working for a not-for-profit organisation focussed on a particular issue or passion, it can sometimes be hard to accept the sincerity of government or business motives. Similarly, business people can be sceptical of the effectiveness or seriousness of those in government and civil society who aren’t disciplined by the rigours of the need to generate a surplus. In government, there is often an elevated sense of responsibility to remain impartial and a suspicion of ‘outsiders’ bringing their own agendas – whether through profit or passion.

Our experience at Wilton Park is that once you can get people from different backgrounds in a room talking with the right mix of formal and informal settings, these single-minded suspicions usually break down and professionals become people. Businesses, or at least the best and most successful businesses over the long term, focus increasingly on the value they are offering, and the values that underpin that offering. So rather than a ‘pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap’ mentality, the best businesses focus on the durability of their products and services, how they contribute to the communities they are selling into, how they can maximise their environmental, social and health benefits, and how their products and services can support the success of others. These qualities are recognised as valuable because they build and sustain relationship-based repeat business – the surest way to long term success. And, of course, these values are not so different from those being increasingly espoused by counterparts in government and civil society in democratic countries.

So whilst regulation and law are important to maintaining and advancing social and environmental justice, a closer engagement with business and an understanding of their motivations can deliver far more. This agenda is increasingly driving our work too, and building closer cooperation and discussion between business, government and civil society will be a growing theme at Wilton Park over the coming months and years.

Tom Cargill, Chief Executive

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