5 TED Talks that look at how business, finance can be a force for good

What are five TED Talks to watch to learn about how business and finance can be a force for good? Photo by: Jack Fussell / CC BY-NC-ND

Looking to learn something new or get a different perspective on business, investment and how it can impact development and social change?

Here are a five TED Talks that look at how companies can prioritize social issues and how capital from private actors, individuals and corporations, can be invested more efficiently towards sustainability.

1. Audrey Choi: Why we need to prioritize investing for social change

Audrey Choi, the chief executive of Morgan Stanley’s Institute for Sustainable Investing

When it comes to promoting social change, consumers are more likely to act with their lattes than with their personal finances, says Audrey Choi, the chief executive of Morgan Stanley’s Institute for Sustainable Investing. It means most consumers opt for the recyclable Starbucks cup, order the sustainably farmed chicken or purchase the hybrid vehicle as a way to push sustainability forward. But when it comes to managing and investing their finances in those sustainable strategies, the average Jane and Joe tend to hold back.

Choi draws on this paradox in her talk, framing it as a way to disabuse common stereotypes about sustainability and finance. To counter the opinion that sustainability and profitability don’t go hand-in-hand, Choi gives concrete examples of companies that have boosted their operating performance and share price by adopting a sustainability-driven agenda. All told, “why can’t we tell the supermarket and the capital markets that we care?” she asks.

2. Chris McKnett: The investment logic for sustainability

Chris McKnett, vice president of ESG investing at State Street Global Advisors

Add up the capital, savings and deposits of millions of individual investors, group them into very large funds and you have the size and scale of institutional investments that can lead to serious social change. In his talk, Chris McKnett, vice president of ESG investing at State Street Global Advisors, one of the world’s largest institutional investment managers, makes the case that large institutional investors are our best bet for a sustainable future. The sheer size of the funds they control makes them “the X factor for sustainability,” he says. He uses financial performance data to show that companies who adopt ESG factors to mitigate risk have tended to outperform market averages. “Sustainable investing is less complicated than we think, better performing than we believe,” he contends.

3. Christine Bader: The evolution of a corporate idealist 

Christine Bader, Amazon’s director of social responsibility

In companies around the world there is an invisible army of corporate idealists working to find the sweet spot between advancing core business interests and social good. But there are times when a company’s operations have led to social disaster, casting a long shadow of suspicion over corporate values and seemingly undermining the efforts of those corporate soldiers. Christine Bader, Amazon’s director of social responsibility, is a self-described corporate idealist who explores this topic in her talk.

She draws on her experience working at BP to promote human rights and community engagement, only to see that same company operate the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. From Deepwater Horizon to the Rana Plaza factory collapse to substandard working conditions in everyday supply chains, she looks into why companies fail in their social missions and what is needed for them to succeed.

4. Harish Manwani: Profit's not always the point

Harish Manwani, Unilever’s chief operating officer

Unilever’s role in responsible business is well known — the consumer goods giant is striving to source 100 percent of its products through sustainable means and chief executive officer Paul Polman has been a leader on encouraging businesses to look at environmental and social impacts.

In this short TED Talk, Unilever’s Chief Operating Officer Harish Manwani offers some practical insights about his company’s sustainability strategy. The new business model will be for companies to create value that change lives and earn true licenses to operate in local communities, he says. That big vision can be boiled down into simple actions. In Unilever’s case, a woman acting as a small distributor selling hand soap in India can change the social order when she partakes in trainings to promote personal hygiene. Multiply that by 60,000 small distributors in country and the change can be exponential.

5. Michael Porter: Why business can be good at solving social problems

Michael Porter, Bishop William Lawrence University Professor at Harvard Business School’s Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness

No list of business and sustainability talks would be complete without Michael Porter. The godfather of shared value and sustainable business strategy, Porter challenges the conventional notion of the role of business in addressing social challenges in this talk. We’ve been aware of great social problems for decades — climate change, food insecurity, poor nutrition — but have only made incremental progress because of a scarcity of resources to address the issues, Porter says.

Business is the only entity that can create resources and they can do so while tackling social challenges, he contends. From that wealth comes tax revenues for government and philanthropic dollars and other “traditional” streams for social spending. So rather than the current system of forming a new NGO for every social need that arises, the equation needs to shift to let businesses profit by solving societal issues. But that requires businesses to change the way they see themselves and the right partnerships with civil society that combine a social agenda with the resource making operations of business, he says.

This is by no means a complete list, do you have recommendations of TED Talks that tackle the role of business and social change? Share them in the comments below.

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About the author

  • Naki B. Mendoza

    Naki is a former reporter, he covered the intersection of business and international development. Prior to Devex he was a Latin America reporter for Energy Intelligence covering corporate investments and political risks in the region’s energy sector. His previous assignments abroad have posted him throughout Europe, South America, and Australia.