In contrast, the picture in industrialized economies is almost unremittingly cynical. Our respondents tell us that the motivations of business cannot be trusted, and that shareholders will always come first; that companies will use their advertising and communications to pull the wool over the eyes of the consumer; that business cannot be trusted to regulate itself, and will only respond to intense statutory pressure.
In the global North, at least, the role that business played in creating the prosperous world people see around them has been long forgotten, and many no longer view their own interests and those of companies as being aligned.
The challenge for NGOs is different. While some people question the way they spend their funds, trust levels in NGOs are healthy and the public's doubts centre mostly on the low profile of their activities and their ability to really make a difference. This goes some way to explain why corporate-NGO partnerships are so appealing.
Our recent global polling suggests that across 22 countries, three out of four people say they would have more respect for a company that partnered with an NGO to help solve social problems. NGOs bring the inherent credibility of their mission, while the corporate world has the reach and resources to change the world around them.
Addressing sustainability challenges is the obvious point where the corporate and the NGO trust agenda intersect. The need to engage with the sustainability agenda is certainly becoming ever more pressing for companies, as the list of systemic problems needing to be addressed and the demands from stakeholders for action both continue to grow. In this new environment, businesses need not just a "social license" to operate -- they need a license to be bold.
The transition to sustainability is going to require the public to give businesses the leeway to do what needs to be done (and it may be controversial) and for businesses to spend the time to understand what matters to people, not just as consumers, but as citizens.
So, the stakes for business are high. But if they succeed, ideas like "shared value" that argue that there is no inherent conflict between a sustainable society and profitable businesses models, may just end up being what re-establishes a jaded public's trust in the corporate world, by convincing people that business can indeed grasp the big picture, and that it cares about something other than the bottom line.
Corporate headquarters photo via Shutterstock.