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A Brief History of Mission-Led Business

Updated: Sep 15, 2021

In recent years, a burning desire for systemic change has been unrooting a business world fixed on exploitation and extraction; reactionaries unwilling to come to terms with the self-destructive nature of late-stage capitalism. Throughout history, this longing for justice has been manifested in lively social movements, community & worker organising, philanthropic efforts, religion, and political upheaval.

Long before the emergence of capitalism, as early as 600AD, the prophet Muhammad declared giving alms (Zakat) as one of the 5 pillars of Islam; fast-forward 700 years and we see Mansa Musa of the Islamic Mali Empire (the world’s richest man) donating so much of his wealth that inflation rocketed across 14th century Africa. Early capitalist society continued exploitation of the masses, however it also built new avenues for change; an opportunity to steer production and business towards the interests and wellbeing of the people. In the 1800s we began to see morals and ethics seeping into business. Robert Owen, owner of the New Lanark Mills, guaranteed fairer wages for employees and better working conditions, while the Rochdale Pioneers founded the modern Co-operative Movement in 1844 in Lancashire, to provide an affordable alternative to poor-quality food and provisions, using their surplus for the benefit of the community. By the 1890s, Quaker companies such as Bourneville and Cadbury’s were raising the bar, providing workers with access to health and education, and adopting an activist anti-slavery position, and even creating workers’ villages.

Social Enterprise

By the 1950s, people began taking note of these developments, with Howard Bowen coining the terms “Social Enterprise” and “Corporate Social Responsibility''. From there on, we have seen the rise of various worker co-operatives, benefit corporations, social enterprises and mission-led businesses; all united by their ambition to be a force for good. Social enterprises began to emerge in the post-war reconstruction, representing a collective will to “build back better”. The rise of the Mondragon in the ‘50s, a federation of Spanish worker co-operatives, epitomised this movement. The business model is quite simple: by operating as non-for-profit, businesses can reinvest profits to tackle social and environmental problems, serving the communities and environment upon which the business depends. Social enterprise represents a worker-led movement set on reinvesting profits to fund local prosperity.

B Corporations

The B-corps certification was founded in 2006 to change the way business was being done. Shortly afterwards, benefit corporations were first recognized as a special category in Maryland in 2010. These for-profit companies balance returning value to shareholders with a legally binding commitment to a social or environmental mission. This means that benefit corporations must consider other stakeholder interests in business decisions.

Benefit corporations represented a response to shareholder primacy, utilising ESG and quantitative data - “measuring what matters” - to reshape investors’ decision-making and bring impact into the mainstream. B-Corps aspire to “do no harm.” (whereas social enterprises “do more good”). Any size of company can become a B-Corps and the model is becoming more mainstream as multinational corporations such as Danone seek to improve their impact.

Responding to Climate Chaos

Today’s climate of environmental breakdown, failing democracy and feudal-era inequality has inspired a fresh movement within business itself; a community of businesses committed to reclaiming the human element of our economy and abandoning the winner-takes-all dogma of the past. In this way, the Positive Impact Community, with its 360° approach, itsCompass methodology, and principles of right relationship to nature, elevating human potential, shared value and “doing more good”, represent the culmination of a long-lasting process of the humanisation of business. Our roadmap (FR4ME) is built on multi-sectoral systems change, initiated by pioneers and changemakers, and sustained by academics, institutions and policymakers. As climate-related disasters and socio-economic crises, this new and growing regenerative field holds the key to repair our broken systems and create a new way forward for business.

The Rise of PICs

Positive Impact Companies build on the strengths of both the Social Enterprise sector and benefit corporation movement.. Whereas B Corps don’t always have a clear social or environmental mission, PICs put Purpose at the centre of their business, and are exclusively SMEs, or Mid Size inspiring impact-focused innovation at a manageable scale. PICs understand the need for a“glocal approach” embracing local impact while simultaneously considering the Earth’s planetary boundaries. Being purpose-driven, for-profit, and also aware of the quantitative and qualitative nature of their impact, PICs are the forerunners of an emerging Regenerative economy. Positive Impact is embedded within their DNA. A good example is Aduna: this company produces baobab products, empowering women farmers in Ghana, and supporting the building of a green wall across the Sahara. Aduna’s impacts are multiple.

PICs are sowing the seeds for a more compassionate Regenerative Economy which goes further than sustainability; not just putting brakes on environmental destruction and social degradation, but actually rebuilding that which has already been lost. The 5 Ps of the Positive Compass (Planet, People, Partners, Places and Purpose) constitute a holistic business philosophy and the very first Regenerative approach in the history of mission-led business.


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