When future generations look back on 2016, the defining story of this year will almost certainly be the political upheaval that swept across Europe and the United States. From the Brexit vote to the U.S. election, the West has experienced a surge of populism with an inescapable message at its core: The global economy is not helping everyone. Indeed, it is leaving many people behind. To achieve prosperity for all, we must embrace a more inclusive capitalism—and redefine the role of business in society.
During the six decades since World War II, there is no question that global commerce and free trade have lifted millions of people out of poverty. As trade among nations has increased, the percentage of the global population living in extreme poverty has fallen precipitously—from 35% in 1990 to around 10% today, according to the World Bank. Yet while globalization has clearly benefited humanity as a whole, it is also clear that not everyone has shared in this progress. In wealthy nations, income disparities are wide and growing. Meanwhile, in many poorer nations, the demand for solutions to food and water shortages, a lack of adequate housing, and other significant challenges is growing everyday.
Global businesses need to do more than merely navigate these challenges. We must help the world solve them. To start, we must work with governments around the world to advance free and fair trade policies that benefit everyone in the countries that participate. But that is just the beginning. The simple reality is that no nation can address its greatest challenges without substantial contributions from the private sector—without the expertise and the scale that global businesses can bring to the table. Our ability to innovate and our discipline to deliver give us an enormous opportunity to advance human progress—if we are ready to redefine our role in society.
I am not suggesting that companies start operating as philanthropies or NGOs. Indeed, the businesses that meet the growing global demand for solutions are the businesses that will grow and thrive in the long run. The companies that define the 21st century will earn their right to operate by delivering value to society as a whole. And they will recognize that the old mindset—that companies have to choose between doing well and doing good—is a false choice. Today, more than ever, you can do well by doing good. In fact, you must.