Reliance Jio to Merck, Inditex to Alibaba … how leading businesses are changing the world for good

August 25, 2018

There’s an ever-growing list of global challenges facing us all. From cybersecurity threats to income inequality to extreme weather to homelessness to food and water insecurity, the range of problems is broad, and the issues are deep.

However more companies than ever are using the profit motive to help the planet and tackle social problems, and are doing so in a way that creates value for the business. Now in its fourth year, the Fortune Change the World list celebrates the changemakers—those pioneering business leaders who look at social issues material to their long-term success and say, “We can do things differently.” They’ve embarked on a strategic shift towards shared value, a smarter business model that reimagines the way companies build new markets, innovate, create distinction, and contribute to a thriving society and planet.

At last year’s Thinkers50 European Business Forum, Michael Porter joined me on stage, and focused on his most recent book Creating Shared Value. It’s impact can be huge – think of the global retailer that builds a talent pipeline to create opportunity for underserved communities that actually delivers more productive employees; the multinational utility that seeks to end energy poverty while it creates new markets; and the shipping company that’s transforming its fleet to be more fuel efficient, saving money and lowering its carbon emissions. Today, many of the world’s biggest and most innovative companies are engaged in initiatives that can contribute to a better society and the environment while they drive their businesses.

#1. Reliance Jio

If access to the Internet is a basic human right—and the United Nations declared it one in the summer of 2016—then Reliance Jio deserves more credit than most for expanding access to it. The telecom upstart, launched in September of that year by Mukesh Ambani, the chairman of Reliance Industries, likes to say it provides the public with “digital oxygen.”

Two years ago, there wasn’t much oxygen to go around in the world’s second-most-populous country. Mobile phones crawled on 2G networks, and consumers typically paid more than 200 rupees ($2.88) for one gigabyte of data. India had just 153 million mobile Internet subscribers among its population of 1.3 billion. Enter Jio, with a speedy 4G network (which it spent billions building out), free calls, and dirt-cheap data (as low as 4¢ per GB). It has since issued a super-lowcost smartphone and is rolling out fixed broadband service as well. Reliance Jio, which says it’s profitable, has amassed 215 million subscribers in just 22 months.

The resulting “Jio-fication” has been nothing short of revolutionary; with data use surging and Jio’s competitors scrambling to match its offerings, the development has jump-started India’s digital economy. The biggest winners are those in rural areas or of modest means—the farmers, students, and entrepreneurs who finally have in their hands the tool they need to participate in the modern economy.

#2. Merck

The timing was tragic. Merck embraced a vital mission in 2014 when it began developing an Ebola vaccine in collaboration with Canada’s public health agency and NewLink Genetics, not long after the deadly virus broke out in West Africa. Effective vaccines take months to create, and by the time V920 could be deployed, the disease had claimed thousands of lives.

But when the scourge rose again earlier this year, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Merck was ready. It shipped nearly 13,000 doses of V920 to the World Health Organization, which provided vaccinations to more than 3,300 people. The DRC’s health ministry says no vaccinated people developed the disease—and with another outbreak declared in the eastern DRC in August, Merck’s lifesaver is on the front lines once more.

#3. Bank of America

In 2007, even as the financial crisis began taking huge bites out of its balance sheet, Bank of America committed to lending, investing, and otherwise raising $20 billion for low-carbon and sustainable business. It has since added $125 billion to that commitment—and deployed $96 billion—financing everything from green skyscrapers in Manhattan to cleaner cookstoves in Kenya. The bank helped invent, and is now the biggest player in, the market in “green bonds,” which secure better financing for climate-protecting projects; green bond issuance worldwide soared from $13 billion in 2013 to $161 billion last year.

#4. Inditex

Mindful of consumers’growing desire to know their clothes were made under safe working conditions, Inditex, the retailer and parent of fast fashion chain Zara, has steadily shifted production to suppliers with stronger safety records. Last year, 95% of its products were made at those better factories, up from 80% in 2012 and well above industry averages. Acting ethically hasn’t hurt the company financially; Inditex has posted 7% annual sales growth since 2012. The company also conducts its own training on worker safety, with an emphasis on educating women—85% of its factory staff—about how to recognize gender discrimination and defend their rights and their value.

#5. Alibaba

Alibaba wants to drive money into rural China in a fairly literal way. Its popular maps service, Auto-Navi, launched a “poverty alleviation map” feature in Henan province this year, designed to entice day-trippers into remote countryside towns. It flags what facilities are available, helping local restaurants, gas stations, and shops draw customers and develop an online presence.

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