Adapt Your Business To Social Change, Or Die

Young consumers are angry, vocal, and eager for social change. Two experts discuss how companies need to adapt.


Nancy Lublin is CEO and “chief old person” of Do, a 20-year-old not-for-profit–cofounded by former Melrose Place star Andrew Shue–that’s devoted to fostering activism among young people. Before joining Do Something in 2003, Lublin started the charity Dress for Success, which provides interview attire and career guidance to underprivileged women. Umair Haque is director of Havas Media Labs, a business-innovation think tank run by international advertising behemoth Havas. His books include The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively Better Business. Lublin and Haque sat down with senior editor Morgan Clendaniel during Fast Company‘s Innovation Uncensored conference in New York earlier this year.


FAST COMPANY: In general, how should businesses approach social change?

Umair Haque: Things need to change when things break, and the situation with the global economy right now is one of breakage. There is a great imperative for change that confronts us. And if we want to respond to it, I will give you three values.

The first is optimism–a profound sense of hope and the possibility that we can better people. The second is rebellion, a sense that the rules are broken and we have to rewrite them if we want to improve things. And the third is empathy, because we can’t change things unless we feel the pain of other people. You need a leader who stands for these things and is willing to build a new kind of organization.

Nancy Lublin: I don’t think the kids we work with give a shit about some of those awesome principles. Basically what we need is a cell phone and we can motivate millions of kids to take action. That’s our philosophy. What’s awesome about social change now is it has become faster, cheaper, and wider. I remember being [a student] and when you wanted to do something social change-y you wrote a flier, you stuck it on trees with tape–not with a pin, because you’d hurt the tree–and a week later, you’d hold a meeting and maybe 10 friends would be there. Now you get pissed off about something, you make it your status update, 40 of your friends comment on it, and bam, you’ve started something really quickly and cheaply.

UH: Do you feel hunger from young people these days?


NL: I feel more anger, which I think is a better motivator. There aren’t any jobs; school is outrageously expensive. They’re frustrated. We did a survey on their opinions on gun violence. Their opinions mirror grown-ups’, except for one big difference: They have no faith that Washington can solve this problem–no faith in politicians. Which means they are not going to run for office, are not going to vote. They don’t think that’s what matters.

UH: How do you combat that apathy?

NL: Is anger apathy? I think anger is a phenomenal match [with activism].

UH: Deciding that you’re not going to vote is indicative of some form of apathy.

NL: It’s a form of apathy, but a huge chunk of kids are doing social change not tied to any organization. The world is in the shitter, but I’m pretty hopeful about what young people can do about it.


FC: Umair, coming from the business world, how do you see that groundswell of anger?

UH: That stuff is really there, and we have to build different kinds of organizations. Otherwise the young are going to eat these companies alive. They don’t trust them, they don’t want to do business with them. If we want to build different kinds of organizations, we have to get real about measuring what matters–real value, not just financial results. And we have to create new kinds of roles. Why don’t we have a chief impact officer, chief community officer, chief well-being officer, chief not-being-evil officer? And the third thing is, get your rewards right. Because unless people are motivated to create real value that benefits people in human terms, they’re never going to do it. New kinds of organizations can hopefully give young people more latitude to go fix the world’s big problems–instead of, if they are lucky enough to get a job, suffering for years doing basically nothing at a giant corporation that is, frankly, not creating a lot of value for anybody but its shareholders.

NL: Those things don’t really matter if we’re still all buying stuff based on other factors. I’m not buying a Frappuccino because of [Starbucks’s] community stuff; I’m buying a Frappuccino because it’s delicious.

UH: In some sense we are being seduced by a model of overconsumption and what I call “dumb consumption.” We are buying a lot of stuff that makes us unhappier and unhealthier in the long run. The real question is not just about how to change companies. It’s about values and what kind of society we want. And I agree, until we get that right there is a much bigger issue.

NL: I don’t want to be taken as anti–cause marketing. I think cause marketing is phenomenal and works, but it has to be done right. Let me give you an example. We called youth shelters and said, “What do you need?” If you were 17 and homeless, what would you ask for when you got to a shelter?


UH: Food?

NL: It’s blue jeans. Every kid in America wants to feel normal and wear jeans. So we called [youth-oriented clothing retailer] Aéropostale and said, “We want to do a campaign where kids clean out their closets and bring their jeans into your stores.” We do it every year now. This is the fifth year. We collect over a million pairs of jeans in three weeks, and Aéropostale says that we are responsible for about 300,000 people coming into their stores in that period. So it’s meaningful for Aéropostale.

UH: You used a key word: meaningful. There is a big difference between putting a nice sheen on stuff and doing stuff that has a real impact.

NL: I want companies to make lots of money when they do social change, but I want it to be authentic.
UH: That’s the challenge: to find that intersection where it’s good for everybody.

NL: You have to [change] if you want to stay in business. You’re listening to your target market, and your target market cares. They are angry, they’re posting about these things, they’re hungry to have an impact on the world. If you’re someone who sells or will ever sell anything to these people, you should be listening to them. That’s basic business.


[Photo by Samantha Casolari]