It is obvious that we are living through a time of profound and accelerating change. Our world has been rocked by a series of disruptions: COVID-19, war and social conflict, rollback of rights and democracy, and now high inflation and the risk of recession. These developments have jolted society, and business.
To help our 300+ member companies navigate this volatile environment, we're releasing a series of blogs over the coming weeks to build insight into how to shape business approaches that address this unique moment. Following the first piece on the role of business in combatting societal fragmentation, today we focus on how business can reorient their efforts around four main objectives.
We’ll conclude with a deeper dive look into how BSR’s 2025 strategy can help your company to navigate these turbulent times—and how you can collaborate with our global network to push us further, faster, to achieve a more equitable, just world for all.
The Business Response
The divisions caused by “The Great Fragmentation” are a barrier to achieving an economy that drives equitable and sustainable progress. This represents the great project of the 21st century: enabling all people to thrive and live in dignity on a healthy planet.
The Great Fragmentation also presents an extremely serious challenge for business. Social division, political dysfunction, and constant conflict result in complexity, costs, and structural barriers that undermine the ability to plan and operate.
To meet the needs of our fragmented world, business can reorient their efforts around four main objectives:
- Close the gap between ambition and delivery on ESG: Business can accelerate delivery of existing commitments. The gap between corporate ambitions and tangible impact hinders social progress and invites skepticism of the bona fides of business’ stated objectives. The gap between stated net-zero commitments, for example, and tangible delivery—let alone progress—sparks cynicism and social division. Delivering on goals is not only an end in itself—it can also heal divisions regarding economic models and establish trust in business as a credible partner.
- Take on the sources of fragmentation directly: Business activities are an important source of fragmentation. Mis- and disinformation, income inequality, and gender and racial pay gaps arise in part from business models and actions. Businesses cannot be a bystander as society fragments. It has an opportunity—and obligation—to remedy the steps it is taking that contribute to widening divisions. The failure to act is a missed opportunity and risks further erosion of trust in business and, more broadly, global market economies.
- Modernize and strengthen the social contract: At the root of this fragmentation is the fact that our social contracts have outlived their use. Existing social contracts are largely based on the world as it was in the immediate aftermath of World War II and are no longer fit for purpose. Modernized and strengthened social contracts can provide the security and mobility people need and deserve, establish the foundation for dynamic and equitable economies, and address 21st-century questions, such as the role and application of new technologies and the energy transition. For business, a more constructive role regarding social contracts also means moving away from reflexive opposition to tax and regulation.
- Increase engagement in constructive public policy solutions: Finally, it is essential that business reorient how they use influence in the development of public policy. It is long past time that the discrepancy between business aspirations and the lobbying efforts of trade associations was erased. In many places, not least the United States, this also means that business should engage more forcefully to ensure that democratic processes are restored and sustained. Business can make fundamental changes to their approach to political contributions and be willing to withdraw support for political figures undermining democracy and rule of law, even if they may advance other policies seen to be “business-friendly.”
There is little doubt that many business leaders would prefer not to have this assignment. Traditional business questions are challenging enough with an economic downturn looming, the ongoing march of new technologies, and continuing disruption of business models. Diving into the fragmentation presents a risk. Turning away from this central problem, however, creates even greater risk. It is unrealistic on the part of business to assume that others will step in to turn the page. It is irresponsible for business to look away from the sources of fragmentation where they take responsibility. And it is unwise to assume that business is immune from the impacts of our deep fragmentation.
By redoubling efforts to deliver on ESG ambitions, helping to reshape the social contract, directly addressing the causes of fragmentation, and taking a more active role in positive policy engagement, business can help reorient societies away from a vicious cycle of division and restore a more favorable operating environment. This is the only sensible path forward if we are to collectively escape the descent to further fragmentation and a world that is increasingly ungovernable, inequitable, and unlivable.