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Trust me, I’m a business


‘Trust me’

is sometimes the last phrase likely to make you trust someone. Kaa, the snake in The Jungle Book, unfurls into view. Why would you need to ask for trust, if you’re behaving in a trustworthy manner?

Snake eyes © Mark Wright / WWF-CambodiaSnake eyes © Mark Wright / WWF-Cambodia

And there’s the difference; in a pre-social media era, we used to be able to push out ‘trust me’ messages and they’d punch some weight. Now, you’ve got to earn it. You must be the real deal, or you’ll be found out. It clearly matters, and was a lead topic at some of the Responsible Business Week events held by Business in the Community in London on 19th April, a day which ended with the Great Business Debate ‘Moving the dial on Trust’.

Following the financial crisis, the ‘trustometer’ swung a good 180 degrees. Many businesses went from hero to zero in the blink of an eye. And just as people’s trust levels had perhaps been unrealistically high, they are now, in fact, too low. For example, Bobby Duffy from Ipsos Mori told us that people vastly underestimate what business pays in tax, and overestimate what the gap is between what is owed and what is paid (they think its 30%; it is in fact 9%). Furthermore, two thirds of people think businesses don’t care what customers think about them.

This loss of trust is a tragedy, according to Tom Thackray from the CBI, since business has the power to be such a force for good. Business enables us to tackle key challenges, so its crying shame that our trust in business is so low.

This is essentially why trust matters today. Not just because of sales or profits, but for people and planet too, and the challenges we face as a species. If you have trust in this era of transparency you’ve hopefully earned it by behaving in the right way. By the same token, if you want trust, take a long hard look at how you operate as a business.

London cityscape - old and new © Getty ImagesLondon cityscape – old and new © Getty Images

So what now?

If the crisis was the tipping point that made trust sink like a stone, it did at least open businesses’ eyes to the reputational risks they’d been facing all along. It shattered the institutional safety glass. They felt, and were, vulnerable. Trust in business bumps along the bottom of the trust chart (doctors are the most trusted), and levels for business are dangerously near the low levels occupied by journalists and politicians. Put that alongside the unstoppable rise of social media, and businesses faced an unprecedented level of exposure. There was nowhere to hide. As Dela Atanda of IBM put it, it’s different now in the post-industrial era; business resides in a world of experience and relationship, which relies on trust. What’s more, as again confirmed by Bobby Duffy (from Ipsos Mori), unsurprisingly the importance of honesty has also shot up for consumers since the financial crisis.

So here we are in the era of democratisation, with scepticism in business rife, and another tipping point is apparent. New global goals and a new climate deal have once again put business and governments squarely in the frame, with expectations of them at dizzying heights. More than ever, actions really do speak louder than words.

Be transparent

And what does a business need to actually do to achieve this trust? Transparency is the answer here. Rowan Conway of the RSA asked us to think about the difference between rhetoric and reality – there is a still a gap between what business leaders say they want to do, and what happens on the ground, which will only serve to perpetuate the lack of respect for, and trust in, corporations.

Even if a business is not totally where it wants to or should be, transparency will win support. Hershey’s, the candy company, was cited at RBW for its open approach. It gets cocoa from all over the world and wants it to be pure and sustainable to meet customer expectations. Honesty played a key part, with Hershey’s admitting they wouldn’t achieve their aims for a while yet, but by declaring a pathway, they are now part of the discussion. That openness and honesty goes a long way to building trust, and we can now follow their progress over a longer time scale.

Long term thinking

Long-term thinking can lead a business to a sustainable pathway, and allow it to develop trust as a result. Pete Mackay of the Post Office asked the audience yesterday if they wanted to act now, or await disaster. Working with others to understand your risks, and then being open and transparent is a big part of avoiding disaster. It also builds trust because it leads to new opportunities and initiatives to offset that risk, and shows customers that concern and humility are part of your approach – that you think beyond profit.

Businessman with green footprintsGreen is good for the economy, whatever the size of business. © istockphoto.com / WWF-Canada

Looking at opportunity rather than thinking only in terms of cost will, in the long-run, stand business in good stead. First-mover advantage not only yields sales, it sets the bar high, and everyone starts to win – that’s perhaps one way to bring shareholders on the journey. Risk assessment is, to us at WWF-UK, the first step on the corporate stewardship ladder. So begins the path towards becoming not only a better business, but an advocate for change, a force for good. We need more businesses to have the courage to look that far ahead. The global goals have put that into sharp focus for some already.

As one delegate put it, trust is not a message, it’s an outcome. Time to start building.

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