Can you sell yogurt and save the planet at the same time? That is the question that the French food group Danone is currently facing.
On March 15, the company pushed out its chairman and chief executive, Emmanuel Faber, under pressure from activist investors. The investors that agitated for Faber’s ouster cited underperforming stock prices and lackluster product lines as the reasons for its actions.
Last year, under Faber, Danone became the first public company to adopt the French “Entreprise à Mission” model, defining social and environmental intentions beyond profit. The ultimate goal was to get B Corp certification by 2025, which states that a company’s duty is not simply to maximize shareholder value but to consider all of its stakeholders, including workers and supply chains, the communities where it does business, the environment and consumers.
As The New York Times put it, “The [Danone] turmoil raises the question whether business models that take all stakeholders into account can survive resistance from activist investors focused primarily on shareholder returns.”
Trade-offs are inevitable
In the face of the current environmental crisis, a growing number of companies choose to pursue financial and social goals simultaneously. Like Danone, some are clearly struggling to balance the trade-offs between social and financial goals.
Some business people and researchers have focused on when and how it may “pay to do good,” how social and financial goals can work in concert. We do not deny that this may sometimes be the case, but we believe the situation is more complex. If all stakeholders’ objectives were complementary, then companies would have no problem pursuing dual aims.
If all stakeholders’ objectives were complementary, then companies would have no problem pursuing dual aims.
Our point of view is that trade-offs are largely inevitable for dual-purpose companies, especially in highly competitive market economies — and in light of the dominant narrative of the past 70 years, which equates a company’s objective with the maximization of shareholder value.
For us, then, the key challenge for dual-purpose companies is to understand the conditions that shape the intensity of financial/social tensions and how to mitigate them. We first argue not all companies will face the same level of intensity in financial/social trade-offs. The institutional environment plays a critical role, with greater levels of economic liberalism leading to a greater intensity of trade-offs.
What companies can do
The good news is that we believe companies can take action to lessen the conflict they experience in pursuing different goals, independent of the economic environment in which they operate. We examine three primary areas within a company that are pertinent: the stated goals of the company, the hiring of decision makers and the incentives employed.
Goal setting. Based on past research, we argue that setting specific and explicit financial and social goals is important. If no specific goals are set for one or the other of the goals, or if no specific goals at all are set, this may lead to the prioritization of one goal over another. By explicitly stating both types of goals, a company commits publicly to pursuing both of them, and thus reduces ambiguity and risk of mission drift.
By explicitly stating both types of goals, a company commits publicly to pursuing both of them, and thus reduces ambiguity and risk of mission drift.
Part of goal setting is setting a time horizon, with longer time horizons benefiting companies with dual purposes — because social performance tends to occur over the long term. For example, reductions in carbon emissions may only occur over a period of years, whereas it may involve short-term financial costs. Companies that operate with a short-term horizon, therefore, may find themselves stalemated in decision making or straying from their mission.
Leadership team. The people hired for the top posts in a company play a central role in weighing the often conflicting demands from the company’s stakeholders. They also play a central role in channeling the company’s resources to both financial and social goals. Top executives can thus translate the company’s dual purpose into actionable activities and, when financial and social goals come into conflict, they can ensure that neither goal is abandoned. We argue that “hybrid” top executives, who, through prior experience and/or training, have knowledge of both financial and social spheres are best able to deal with the demands of a dual-purpose company.
Top executives who have knowledge of both financial and social spheres are best able to deal with dual-purposes, and the board members play a key role setting a company’s agenda.
As a corollary to this, board members play a key role setting a company’s agenda. Thus, board members’ sustained attention to dual organizational goals is essential in
the process of arbitrating the financial/social trade-offs inherent to most strategic decisions.
Compensation. Finally, we argue that dual-purpose companies should set moderate incentives that tie executive rewards to performance on both financial and social dimensions. Such companies may be more successful in pursuing their dual aims than companies that do not set explicit incentives or that tie rewards solely to financial or social performance.
Selling yogurt, saving the planet
In Danone’s statement announcing its management changes, the company stated that it still “believes in the necessity” of marrying “high economic performance” with the firm’s “unique model of a purpose-driven company.”
Only time will tell whether Danone will be able to both sell yogurt and save the planet. The case, though, points to the increasing salience of the joint pursuit of financial and social goals, as well as the urgent need for renewed thinking in this field.