The last 20 years have seen over a billion people lift themselves out of poverty. Employment rates have risen creating the opportunity for people to enjoy better homes, food, education, health, and career prospects. This normally generates high levels of trust in our institutions, governments, business, and indeed capitalism itself. However, research suggests the very opposite is happening, in the developed world, and  especially in the UK. Uncertainty over the future has grown significantly, and it seems hard work and citizenship no longer delivers the benefits people expected.   

The Edelman Trust Barometer 2020 report* makes unsettling reading for the UK. When it comes to the Premier League of Trustwe are second bottom, our lowest ever position. It appears years of institutional failings, the financial crash, MPs expenses, phone hacking, social media, fake news platforms and even charity scandals such as Oxfam in Haiti have taken their toll causing many to lose what trust they had in our institutions, and their ability to change.  

There is a clear difference in levels of public trust between the developed and developing worlds. In the emerging economies of Asia and the Middle East the link between improving economic conditions and trust remains intact. It’s in the developed western markets that the sting of lost trust is being felt. 

Here are some of the report’s findings: 

Milton Friedman famously wrote, “There is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.” This is often quoted as permission to do whatever it takes to make money. However, if you include the other half of the statement, he goes on to say “… so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”  

Trust is important in any relationship and once it’s been damaged it’s notoriously difficult to recover. So what actions are required to win it backThere were three key trust building priorities that emerged from the Edelman study: 

Other notable findings in terms of public sentiment: 

Research suggests people measure trust using two distinct criteria: competence and ethical behaviour. Plunging into the murky waters of what constitutes ethical behaviour we find – purpose, vision, values, honesty, and fairness. CS Lewis famously described integrity as “doing the right thing, even if no-one is looking.” Keeping your promises still represents the principal benchmark for trust. Governments, unsurprisingly, don’t fare well, but in truth no-one does:  

  • Business, whilst competent, is not seen as ethical.  
  • Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) are seen as ethical, but incompetent,  
  • Governments are seen as both unethical and incompetent, as is the media.  

The graphic below from the Edelman Trust Barometer 2020 report shows the scoring and positions of the key players when the contributors were asked the question, “How much do you trust this institution to do what is right?” 

Cause for optimism 

In 2019 The Business Roundtable (top US CEOs from Apple, WalmartCisco, JP Morgan and more) issued a statement defining the purpose of the corporation in stakeholder terms, a direct and intended reversal from an earlier statement that defined the duty of directors as serving the interests of stockholders alone 

The American dream is alive, but fraying” said Jamie Dimon, Chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Chairman of Business Roundtable. Major employers are investing in their workers and communities because they know it is the only way to be successful over the long term. These modernized principles reflect the business community’s unwavering commitment to continue to push for an economy that serves all Americans. 

Here is an extract from their Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation 

“While each of our individual companies serves its own corporate purpose, we share a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders. We commit to: 

  • Delivering value to our customers. We will further the tradition of American companies leading the way in meeting or exceeding customer expectations. 
  • Investing in our employees. This starts with compensating them fairly and providing important benefits. It also includes supporting them through training and education that help develop new skills for a rapidly changing world. We foster diversity and inclusion, dignity, and respect. 
  • Dealing fairly and ethically with our suppliers. We are dedicated to serving as good partners to the other companies, large and small, that help us meet our missions. 
  • Supporting the communities in which we work. We respect the people in our communities and protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices across our businesses. 
  • Generating long-term value for shareholders, who provide the capital that allows companies to invest, grow and innovate. We are committed to transparency and effective engagement with shareholders. 

Each of our stakeholders is essential. We commit to deliver value to all of them, for the future success of our companies, our communities, and our country.” 

Here are some of the Business Roundtable initiatives already underway in support of employees:

  • Increasing minimum wages and adjusting starting-wage scales upward to increase employees’ economic security from the start 
  • Investing in opportunities for employees to gain new skills, grow personally and professionally and contribute to a more innovative future for their companies 
  • Increasing accessibility and affordability of health care before, during and after trying times; or 
  • Offering educational benefits, such as student loan repayment programs or scholarships for children of employees. 

If we look back at what actions the Edelman Trust Barometer research suggested would establish more trust, they are contained within the commitments made by The Business Roundtable members.  

These actions are replicated across other initiatives such as The Business for Inclusive Growth by French Multi-national companies, which focusses on delivering fair wages for employees. 177 multi-national businesses have signed up to the Business Ambition for 1.5 Degrees in support of climate change action. Where these companies lead, many more will follow. 

Perhaps there is hope that business leaders will be the catalyst for governments and other institutions to step up. It’s likely to follow the same pattern as the super-tanker changing course. You start to change direction, but it takes time for the change to be effective in terms of arriving at your chosen destination. 

Our current circumstances challenge our ability to endure an environment we have little control over. But winning back the trust and confidence of consumers and citizens worldwide is a longterm project, but at least it’s begun.  


*The Edelman Trust Barometer is a global survey of 34,000 college-educated people from the top 25% earning households who are significant media consumers, especially public policy, and business news, and aged between 25 and 64, across 28 global locations.