Charles Murgha is 36 had never had a job until he got a carpentry apprenticeship a few years ago.
Soon he’ll be a qualified tradesman, and will have helped build 29 homes in his community of Yarrabah, not far from Cairns.
The town has a 45 per cent unemployment rate. Charles says boys stop by to watch him work, and ask him how they can also get a job building houses when they leave school.
Asked if that makes him proud, Charles eventually says, quietly: “Gives me goosebumps.”
Charles was assisted in his apprenticeship not by government agencies but by Cairns-based construction and property development company Mihaven.
Mihaven, which doubles as a registered training provider, is one of a growing number of businesses — here in Australia, but also globally — seeking to show ethically-minded consumers that they’re driven by more than profits.
Founded five years ago and run by former town planner Sarah Mort and her builder husband James, the company focuses on training and employment for Indigenous and other disadvantaged job-seekers.
Sarah and James Mort founded their property development company with social impact in mind. (ABC RN: Ann Arnold)
Twenty-five per cent of Mihaven’s workforce is Indigenous, and Ms Mort says training staff go the extra mile to help trainees lock in work experience and job placements.
“We have persisted so hard. Door-knocked every single big box retailer in this town,” she says.
“We used every single contact we have, every relationship we can lean on, to help people get jobs.”
Consumers want responsible businesses
The need for a social purpose is increasingly expected by consumers, who are disaffected with big business in particular.
“The public expectations of your company have never been greater. Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose,” Larry Fink, the chairman of giant asset management company BlackRock, wrote in his annual letter to CEOS.
Companies have little choice but to respond, or risk a community backlash that can threaten the bottom line or the viability of a brand.
Bronwen Dalton says businesses are increasingly trying to avoid public shaming campaigns. (ABC RN: Ann Arnold)
“Business is experiencing increased numbers of popular protests, consumer boycotts, legal suits, various public shaming campaigns,” says Associate Professor Bronwen Dalton, from the UTS Business School.
“All are trying to highlight businesses as a source of doing social wrong.”
Ken Henry, the chairman of National Australia Bank and a former Treasury secretary, says it’s time for businesses to be responsible — and accountable.
“‘I think business leaders right across Australia should be taking ownership of all of the consequences of their business’s activities. All of the consequences,” he said in February.
Ripple effects of social impact
Last year Mihaven went through a fairly exhaustive box-ticking exercise to become accredited as a B Corp, or Benefit Corporation — the only construction company in Australia to have this distinction.
B Corp is a movement that began in the United States, as a means of setting standards for companies to prove they are making a positive difference, both internally with staff and suppliers, and externally with society at large.
Mihaven has multiple projects running, including a new student accommodation complex in Cairns, which will house mature age healthcare students from remote Cape York communities, among others.
It has worked with several remote communities on the Cape, with a model of training locals to build their own houses.
The idea was to counter the common pattern of prebuilt houses being delivered into a community where there’s little or no employment. The end goal is to hand over to the communities themselves to manage their own construction.
One of Mihaven’s major backers is Roger Allen, who founded the Computer Power Group, which became a global, billion-dollar IT business.
These days he’s a venture capitalist and social impact investor, with a passion for Indigenous advancement.
“One of the real problems in Indigenous communities is there’s so much ‘top down’,” he says.
“‘The government tells you if you want a benefit you’ve got to work for the dole, you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that. But the only way forward is for communities themselves to really want to do something and be passionate, and then we can support and help them.”
Supply chains and human rights
Another business keeping social impact in mind is Konica Minolta, which mostly sells printers and scanners. It has positioned itself as a business leader in the area of supply chains and human rights.
The company hired Laura McManus, who has a Master’s degree in human rights, as a supply chain consultant.
She oversees operations in Australia, including uniform makers, delivery drivers and cleaners. But the supply chain outside Australia is much harder to control.
Business owners are increasingly looking to find ways to be more socially conscious, as was the case at the Purpose conference in Sydney recently. (Supplied: Purpose Conference)
Raw minerals that go into electronics used in their printers — and our smartphones — are typically from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where child labour is rife, as is mining-funded conflict.
Konica Minolta in Australia is reliant on its Japan-based parent company to lead industry initiatives to raise working standards in their global supply chain.
But Ms McManus says it’s imperative that business engages on these issues.
“I think we need to be pragmatic in how we approach it,” she says.
“If every electronic company in the world stopped using minerals from a high-risk environment, we would have none of the products we have today.
“If we think practically, that’s unlikely to happen, not only from the business perspective but also from the consumer demand for new and innovative products.
“So what companies are well positioned to do is to use their influence in that transaction to actually make change on the ground where it occurs.”
Associate Professor Dalton says the ripple effect of social impact should not be underestimated.
“What it’s doing is building a sense of community, and it’s measurable,” she says.
UTS offers free online training in measuring social impact.