Lucy Kellaway’s recent Financial Times commentary “How I Lost My 25-Year Battle Against Corporate Claptrap” made its way around staff inboxes at the Erb Institute. She attacks corporate “guff” that is full of cleverly crafted words and phrases—but that says, essentially, nothing. It was a useful reminder to resist that siren call of “tosh talk.” We’re all guilty of it—at least I know I am! After all, shouldn’t we just all say what we mean?

However, Kellaway is missing the forest for the trees. While the prose of Howard Schultz (her veritable “champion in the bullshit space”) may be too jargon-packed for her tastes, let’s not lose sight of the deep positive impact that Schultz is making on what matters most—things like employee development in Starbucks cafes; labor conditions on farms across Latin America, Africa and Asia; and community investment in health, education and basic human development. It’s hard to deny Schultz’s personal passion for—and professional leadership on—these issues, and how he has changed the way employees, executives and even investors think about their role in society. Schultz has also taken his passion beyond the company, to push for diversity and social inclusion on the U.S. national stage—which comes at a particularly critical time in U.S. history.
I don’t pretend to be an apologist for Howard Schultz. And I, along with many others, recognize that Starbucks still has work to do on the social/environmental front. The company is behind the curve on nutrition and obesity, and, at its core, the Starbucks business model is a resource-intensive massification of consumption. But where Kellaway categorizes the world into two hemispheres (tosh and non-tosh), I would venture that another two quadrants exist—those who talk the talk and those who walk it. I like to think that Schultz is in the latter, where things get done. Or, as Kellaway suggested, “While I have spent decades getting steamed up about mere words, he has been making a difference to the way half the world lives and drinks.” Agreed!

Why does this matter to us at the Erb Institute?

We work with business leaders who are passionate about sustainability and committed to making a real impact. We recently started up a three-year initiative focused on defining, measuring and communicating business contribution to sustainability. We’re particularly interested in how business is helping to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals—such ambitious pursuits as ending hunger, combating climate change, achieving gender equality and promoting decent work. This won’t be easy, but we’re convinced that business needs to play a lead role in bringing these goals to life.