Could the way businesses have stepped up in the wake of this summer’s bushfire crisis point to a “new normal” for business, asks David Pearson.

Last summer’s devastating bushfire crisis has revealed much about the changing role of business in Australia.

Some of the nation’s largest businesses, such as the Commonwealth Bank, Woodside Petroleum and Woolworths, have announced they are providing paid leave for emergency services volunteers. The Business Council of Australia has set up a perpetual trust to assist the children of volunteers who have died fighting these fires or in future disasters.

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Businesses everywhere are stepping up in an unprecedented way and are demonstrating the kind of leadership that so many Australians had expected from their national government in this time of crisis.

But why are they doing this? After all, some of these companies are the same ones whose actions have been the focus of royal commissions and other investigations in recent times.

Are the laudable actions these businesses have taken a genuine commitment to the community they operate in? Or is it just like greenwashing, where companies use marketing to appear more environmentally friendly than they really are, but in this case “social-washing”?

Australians will have to judge for themselves. But, the unprecedented scale and speed of their commitments suggests something more powerful at play than just marketing spin.

One thing is for certain, if the recent bushfires – and the conditions that created them – represent a new normal, as so many have claimed, then the leadership that has been demonstrated by so many businesses in response to the disasters can’t be a one-off reaction. It needs to be the new normal too.

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The good news is that the way we “do business” in Australia is changing. There are a growing number of businesses committed to doing just this: to being part of their local communities all year round, not just in times of crisis, and, most importantly, committed to doing no harm in the first place. This includes taking strong action on climate change and supporting local communities to be more resilient and adaptable in the face of a changing climate.

These businesses have many names: social enterprises, social businesses, cooperatives, benefit corporations (B-Corps) and shared value-practicing companies. Yet, what they all have in common is a desire to be part of solving the problems that communities face, rather than creating such problems in the first place. Importantly, businesses are achieving this in a way that seeks to balance doing well with doing good.

Let’s hope that what comes out of this summer’s national crisis is the demonstration of a new normal way to do business in Australia.

About the author: David Pearson is an Industry Adjunct for the Australian Alliance for Social Enterprise as part of the University of South Australia’s Business School and is the Australian director of the Institute of Global Homelessness.

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