Troubled awakenings

September 27, 2019

There’s a danger that “ethical business” is becoming a refuge for scoundrels, undermining those more serious about the practice.

Thomas Cook Travel, which went bust this month leaving 150,000 travellers stranded, last year went big on a sustainability programme, right at the time its sales were beginning to tank.

CEO Peter Fankhauser said at the end of 2018 that “my belief [is] that our business will only grow if we continue to…become a more sustainable and ethical business.”

The company stopped taking bookings for orca parks, set targets for reduction in waste, energy, plastics and emissions (without specific plans to achieve them, although it did install LED lights), and donated money to various children’s charities.

This didn’t change the sales trajectory, despite customers telling the company in various surveys that they loved sustainability. That’s a reminder that wallets trump values.

There’s no research to show that the level or type of “ethical” activity leads to different sales results. But we can be confident that “belief” in the values is not enough. Thomas Cook’s Fankhauaser claimed he believed “passionately” that the sustainability programme would secure the company’s future. It didn’t.