Sometimes companies set objectives as incentives that serve them in their pursuit of profit, but result in behaviours that are not beneficial on the whole.

For example facebook is incentivised to drive longer and longer attention by users which has resulted in addiction to device use by the users and countless waisted hours scrolling through seemingly endless content.

And that has affected our culture directly, many users thinking that success is measured by how many likes they get on their posts.

The Danger of Narrowly Focused Incentives

The phenomenon where companies set goals that prioritise profit over the well-being of individuals and society, is a significant issue in modern capitalism. This often results in externalities, where the social, environmental, or economic costs of these goals are not borne by the companies themselves, but by society at large.

Below are a few examples that illustrate how focusing on the wrong objectives can create broader problems:

1. Social Media Platforms (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, TikTok)

These platforms are designed to maximise user engagement and time spent on the site, often through algorithms that promote content that elicits strong emotional reactions. This can lead to addiction, mental health issues, misinformation spread, and a distorted sense of reality among users. The pursuit of likes and followers as a measure of success and validation can also impact self-esteem and well-being.

2. Fossil Fuel Industry

Oil and gas companies have historically focused on maximising extraction and profits, often at the expense of environmental health and sustainability. This has contributed to pollution, climate change, and ecological degradation. The pursuit of short-term financial gains has often led to resistance against investing in renewable energy sources and lobbying against climate change legislation, further exacerbating the environmental crisis.

3. Fast Fashion

Retailers like H&M and Zara operate on a business model that prioritises quick production and turnover of cheap, trendy clothing. This leads to enormous waste, environmental pollution, and poor working conditions in supply chain countries. The focus on driving constant consumption not only depletes natural resources but also promotes a throwaway culture that undermines sustainability efforts.

4. Financial Sector Practices

The 2008 financial crisis highlighted how banks and financial institutions pursued profit through risky lending and complex financial products without adequate consideration of the potential for widespread economic collapse. This focus on short-term gains over financial stability led to massive bailouts, foreclosures, and economic hardship for millions of people.

5. Pharmaceutical Industry

Companies may prioritise the development and marketing of profitable drugs over those that meet the most pressing public health needs. For instance, the opioid crisis was fuelled in part by aggressive marketing practices that downplayed the addiction risks of these drugs. Moreover, there’s often less investment in antibiotics and vaccines that are critically needed but considered less profitable.

In each of these examples, the core issue lies in the misalignment between corporate objectives and societal well-being. Solutions to these problems often involve regulatory intervention, consumer awareness, and pressure for corporate social responsibility. However, finding a balance that allows companies to be profitable while also being cognisant of their impact on society and the environment remains a complex challenge.

Being Successful in Generating Profits But Not At The Expense of Social and the Whole

For company leaders to generate profits without negatively impacting society and the environment, they must embrace a more holistic, sustainable approach to business. This involves integrating social, environmental, and ethical considerations into their core business strategies, often referred to as the “triple bottom line” approach, which considers profit, people, and the planet.

Here are several strategies and approaches that can guide leaders in this direction:

1. Adopt Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

Develop and implement CSR policies that go beyond mere compliance to actively improve the well-being of communities, the environment, and society at large. This can include investing in sustainable practices, community development projects, and transparent reporting of social and environmental impact.

2. Pursue Sustainable Business Practices

Shift towards sustainability in operations, products, and services. This involves reducing waste, improving energy efficiency, sourcing materials ethically and sustainably, and designing products with a lower environmental impact. For example, companies can adopt circular economy principles to minimise waste and maximise resource efficiency.

3. Stakeholder Engagement

Instead of focusing solely on shareholder value, adopt a stakeholder approach that considers the impacts of business decisions on all stakeholders including employees, customers, communities, and the environment. Engaging with stakeholders can provide valuable insights into societal needs and expectations, driving innovation and improving social license to operate.

4. Invest in Employees

Recognise that a company’s success is deeply linked to the well-being of its employees. Offer fair wages, foster inclusive and diverse work environments, provide opportunities for growth and development, and ensure safe working conditions. This not only enhances productivity and loyalty but also improves company reputation.

5. Ethical Leadership and Governance

Cultivate a culture of integrity and transparency, where ethical decision-making is at the forefront of business operations. This involves setting clear ethical standards, training employees on these standards, and holding everyone accountable, from the top down.

6. Long-term Thinking

Shift focus from short-term profits to long-term sustainability and resilience. This might mean reevaluating business models, investment strategies, and performance metrics to prioritise sustainable growth over quick gains.

7. Innovate for Social Impact

Leverage innovation to address societal challenges, such as developing new products and services that meet unaddressed needs or improve quality of life without harming the environment.

8. Collaborate for Greater Impact

Work with governments, NGOs, industry partners, and other stakeholders to address systemic challenges that no single entity can solve alone. This includes participating in public-private partnerships and industry coalitions aimed at advancing sustainability goals.

9. Transparent Reporting

Regularly disclose business operations’ social, environmental, and financial impacts, adhering to international standards and frameworks. Transparency builds trust with stakeholders and can drive improvements in performance.

By integrating these approaches into their core strategy, leaders can drive their companies to not only be profitable but also contribute positively to society and the environment. This not only safeguards the company’s long-term success but also contributes to a more sustainable and equitable global economy.

Positive Examples

Several companies across various industries have successfully balanced profit generation with positive social and environmental impacts, demonstrating that financial success can go hand-in-hand with sustainability and corporate responsibility.

Here are some noteworthy examples:

1. PATAGONIA – An outdoor clothing company renowned for its commitment to environmental sustainability and ethical manufacturing practices. Patagonia donates a portion of its sales to environmental projects, uses recycled materials in its products, and encourages consumers to buy less and repair old gear instead of purchasing new.

2. BEN & JERRY’S – A well-known ice cream manufacturer that integrates social justice and environmental sustainability into its core business operations. It sources Fair-trade certified ingredients, supports climate justice, and engages in activism on various social issues, all while maintaining profitability and brand loyalty.

3. TESLA – Pioneered the mass-market electric vehicle (EV), significantly contributing to the reduction of carbon emissions in the transportation sector. Tesla’s innovation extends beyond electric cars to renewable energy solutions, such as solar panels and energy storage systems, pushing the energy industry towards sustainability.

4. INTERFACE – A modular flooring company that has set ambitious sustainability goals and achieved them, including reducing its environmental footprint and aiming for a zero negative impact on the planet by 2020 through initiatives like recycling, using renewable energy, and sourcing sustainable materials.

5. TOM’S OF MAINE – Known for its natural personal care products, the company dedicates a portion of its profits to environmental and social causes. It emphasises sustainability in its packaging and ingredient sourcing, and encourages employees to engage in community service.

6. IKEA – The world’s largest furniture retailer is committed to becoming a circular and climate-positive business by 2030. IKEA invests in renewable energy, aims to use only sustainable and recycled materials, and offers programs to buy back and refurbish used furniture to reduce waste.

7. UNILEVER – A multinational consumer goods company that has integrated sustainability into its business model through its Sustainable Living Plan, aiming to decouple its growth from environmental impact while increasing its positive social impact. It focuses on reducing environmental footprint, improving health and well-being, and enhancing livelihoods across its supply chain.

8. SALESFORCE – A leader in cloud computing, Salesforce demonstrates a strong commitment to social responsibility and environmental sustainability. It operates on a carbon-neutral cloud platform, invests in clean energy, and has established an innovative 1-1-1 model of philanthropy, donating 1% of its product, equity, and employees’ time to community initiatives.

These companies show that it’s possible to be profitable while also making a positive impact on society and the environment. Their success challenges the traditional view of business as a zero-sum game between profit and sustainability, offering models for others to follow.

The Social Media Dilemma

I know I’m focusing on social media here, but it’s such an issue I think it’s a worthwhile discussion.

Social media platforms can play a pivotal role in mitigating the negative effects associated with user addiction, the pursuit of validation through likes, and the pressure to conform to unrealistic beauty standards through filters. Implementing changes that prioritise user well-being over engagement metrics can help address these issues.

Here are several steps social media companies could take:

1. Modify the Algorithm to Promote Well-being

Adjust algorithms to prioritise content that fosters positive interactions and well-being, rather than simply what keeps users engaged the longest. This includes promoting educational, uplifting, and genuine content over sensational or polarising content.

2. Reduce Emphasis on Metrics

Minimise the visibility of like counts and follower numbers to reduce the pressure on users to seek validation through these metrics. Some platforms have experimented with hiding like counts to see if it decreases comparison and competition among users.

3. Encourage Breaks and Manage Screen Time

Introduce features that encourage users to take breaks or limit their daily usage. This could include reminders after a certain amount of time spent on the app, or tools that allow users to set their own usage limits.

4. Transparent Reporting and Controls for Algorithms

Provide users with more information about how the recommendation algorithms work and offer them controls to customise their feed. This could help users understand why they see certain content and how they can adjust settings to see more of what they find meaningful.

5. Promote Digital Literacy and Mental Health Awareness

Launch campaigns to educate users about the impacts of social media on mental health and provide resources for those who might be struggling. This can include partnerships with mental health organisations to offer support and advice directly through the platform.

6. Improve Content Moderation

Invest in better content moderation to quickly identify and limit the spread of harmful content, including misinformation, bullying, and content that promotes unhealthy body images. This can be achieved through a combination of AI and human moderators.

7. Develop Non-Addictive Design Features

Reconsider design choices that encourage compulsive use, such as endless scrolling, auto-playing videos, and frequent notifications. Designing with intention to create a less addictive user experience can help reduce overall screen time.

8. Support Authentic and Diverse Content

Encourage content that represents a wide range of experiences, bodies, and lifestyles to counteract the prevalence of filtered and edited images that contribute to unrealistic beauty standards. Highlighting diverse and authentic content can help foster a more inclusive online environment.

9. User Feedback and Participation

Actively seek and incorporate user feedback regarding platform changes and new features, especially from diverse user groups. This can help ensure that the platform evolves in a way that meets the needs of its user base while promoting a healthier social media environment.

10. Research and Collaboration

Collaborate with researchers and academics to study the long-term effects of social media use and to develop evidence-based interventions. This research can inform more effective strategies for reducing negative outcomes associated with platform use.

By taking these steps, social media platforms can begin to address some of the critical issues facing users today, balancing the need for engagement with the imperative to ensure the mental and emotional well-being of their communities.

Remaining Profitable With Broader Incentives – Is It Possible?

Could social media platforms do those things I suggested in the previous section and still be profitable?

I have no doubt social media platforms can implement measures to mitigate negative effects on users and still remain profitable. Though, let’s be realistic here, it would depend on how greedy they are when it comes to profits.

This approach would clearly require a long-term perspective that recognises the value of user well-being and trust as foundations for sustainable growth.

Let’s assume short-term profit driven greed is not the main driver. Here’s how such a strategy can be aligned with profitability:

1. Brand Loyalty and Trust

By prioritising user well-being, platforms can build stronger brand loyalty and trust among their user base. Users are more likely to stay engaged with platforms that they feel have their best interests at heart, which can translate to stable long-term revenue.

2. Diversification of Revenue Streams

Platforms can diversify their revenue models beyond traditional advertising that relies heavily on maximising screen time and engagement metrics. This can include subscription models for premium features, partnerships with health and educational organisations, and creating marketplaces for goods and services that align with the platform’s values.

3. Attracting Advertisers with Quality Engagement

Advertisers are increasingly concerned about the context in which their ads appear. Platforms that promote positive interactions and genuine content can attract quality advertisers who are willing to pay a premium for engagement in a healthy, positive environment.

4. Reducing Regulatory Risks

By taking proactive steps to address social and mental health concerns, social media companies can reduce the risk of regulatory interventions, which can be costly and disrupt business operations. This proactive stance can also position them as industry leaders in responsible social media practices.

5. Innovation and New Opportunities

Focusing on user well-being can drive innovation, leading to the development of new features and services that meet user needs in healthier ways. This can open up new revenue opportunities and markets, keeping the platform competitive and relevant.

6. Enhanced Public Image and CSR

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts that include addressing the negative effects of platform use can enhance a company’s public image and attract both users and employees who value ethical practices. This positive reputation can be a significant asset in a competitive market.

7. Long-term User Engagement

By creating a more positive and less addictive user experience, platforms can encourage long-term, sustainable engagement. Users are less likely to experience burnout and more likely to continue using the platform over time, albeit in a healthier way.

8. Collaborations and Partnerships

Platforms that are seen as taking a responsible approach to user well-being can forge valuable collaborations with educational institutions, governments, and non-profits. These partnerships can provide additional revenue streams and enhance the platform’s role in public discourse.

9. Leveraging Data for Good

Ethically using the vast amounts of data that social media platforms collect can provide insights into improving public health, understanding societal trends, and contributing to research without compromising user privacy. This responsible use of data can also open up new avenues for innovation and collaboration.

In essence, aligning business models with the well-being of users requires a shift in how success is measured, moving from short-term metrics to long-term value creation. By investing in the health and satisfaction of their user base, social media companies can secure a stable, loyal user base, reduce risks, and open up new revenue paths, all of which contribute to sustainable profitability.

More Information

For more information about the work of George Lee Sye, visit  where you’ll discover one of the most significant professional development programs in the world today covering topics of leadership, influence, business execution, and lean six sigma.

Share This