Is big business really the big bad wolf?

The big bad wolf is the archetypal menacing predator. Preying on the weak and vulnerable, he has few, if any, redeeming features. For many, this is how they see big business. Recent research by the Legatum Institute showed that the British public holds an unfavourable view of ‘capitalism’ as a concept, viewing it as ‘greedy’, ‘selfish’ and ‘corrupt’. A vast majority, according to the research, would like to see many industries, and the big businesses within them, nationalised.

It’s full of avaricious CEOs, overworked and underpaid employees and companies that seek to avoid paying their fair share. But this is mostly not true and is a insidious narrative that seeks to cast aside the myriad benefits that big business brings – both economic and more progressive social issues.   

This narrative is creating distrust and pessimism among the general public. In the UK, just 31% agree that they have a high level of trust in business. A huge 59% disagree with this statement, according to Ipsos Mori. While in America only 21% of people asked how much confidence they had in big business said quite a lot or a great deal, compared to 70% who gave the same response for small business.

But size matters. It brings economies of scale, creates operational efficiencies and reduces prices. In the UK, there are 7,000 large businesses (those with 250 people or more). This is just 0.1% of the total and yet these companies employ nearly 10.5m people, 40% of all private sector employees. They generate more than £2bn in revenues – some 54% of total turnover. They are vital to our economy and, more importantly, provide financial security for millions of people and their families up and down the UK.

And even if you don’t work for a big business, your passions and interests may well mean you need them. Alongside these obvious financial benefits, big business is also progressive – advancing causes that demonstrate its value to both society and the economy.

Let’s take three examples – innovation, wellbeing and diversity – all of which are important issues that many across the political spectrum are focusing on.

Driving innovation

While start-ups are crucial for innovation, big business often leads the way in other areas. Take two examples, Apple and Amazon, the world’s first and fourth most valuable companies respectively.

Apple has changed how we organise our lives and businesses through the smartphone. It gave rise to the app-based economy which led to a whole host of new services like Uber and Just Eat.

Amazon has had a similar impact, continuing to launch a range of new services that have transformed its sector, business more widely and society as a whole. One example is Amazon cloud services that enables start-up developers to concentrate on their apps rather than the infrastructure that supports them. This has undoubtedly propelled the growth of the app-based economy. So innovation which is responsible for better products and services, is lead by big business.  

In these cases, big companies are fostering innovation through collaboration and funding for startups – further helping to drive growth.

A report by Nesta, the innovation foundation, showed that private companies had provided by the bulk of funding for accelerator programmes over the last few years. Some 163 accelerators support around 3,660 new businesses per year – providing both innovation and new jobs.

Far from lacking innovation and trying to restrict new entrants, big business – whether on its own or through collaboration – is driving innovation throughout the economy, benefitting the economy and the consumer.  

What about wellbeing?

Believe it or not but big business is also advancing the cause of employee wellbeing. This makes business sense, as healthier happier employees are more productive. Whatever their motivation, big business is leading the way and advancing a progressive cause

Data from Britain’s Healthiest Workplace shows that employees at large companies have access to whole range of benefits. Some are standard, such as fresh drinking water and fruit and veg in the workplace. Others which are more forward-thinking, like healthy food options in vending machines and dietician and nutritionist services.

A few are taking it even further. QVC UK, the multimedia retailer, has centred its entire company around wellbeing with the mission statement: ”creating a great place to work”. The company offers flexible working, massages during breaks, two on-site beauticians, a local market, and an employee allotment.

All these benefits help employees both psychically and mentally, making them more resilient and better able to cope with the pressures of the modern world. So far from being exploitative environments, big business here looks after its employees making work a better, more enjoyable place to be.

Delivering diversity

Another cause not typically associated with big business but one where it demonstrates its progressive credentials is diversity. The DiversityInc Top 50, a US-based company ranking which assesses diversity and inclusion, shows a number of big businesses that are leading the way.

EY, the global professional services firm, is in the top spot, having 11% more women in senior leadership positions than the top 50 and a massive 45% more than the S&P 500.

Other firms on the list include Johnson & Johnson, the pharmaceutical and consumer goods company, which has more directors on the board from different ethnic backgrounds than 40% of the top 50, MasterCard, Marriott International, Proctor & Gamble, Dell and General Motors. Common to all of these companies is a proactive and positive engagement in the issue and a willingness to change. Rather than representing bastions of social conservatism then, big business is advancing an important social issue and taking a progressive stance.

So far from being the big bad wolf, business and capitalism are forces for good, changing the world for the better and often leading the way. But the narrative in the media around business has been captured by the critics. Yes, there are poor practices and bad apples, but we need to challenge these detractors and change the narrative to re-establish that business is the source of wealth and job creation and also advances progressive causes, if business is to continue to have a positive impact.  


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