When your business makes transitional shelters for humanitarian disaster zones, profit can all too easily seem a dirty word! How can one mention “profit”, whilst looking at images of people living under rags and plastic bags? Moreover, is there room for commercial ‘cut and thrust’, such as: sourcing cheap materials and/or manufacturing; paying salaries that undercut competitors; or using unpaid interns/students within the workforce, in order to hold down unit prices (desirable for sales in this market), whilst claiming that your business’s aim is to “do some good in the world”?
‘Extremis’ has always been concerned to be an ethical/responsible business. However, the day-to-day conflict between business sense and good global citizenship forced us to think hard about how to square the above between principals and profit. To do this we devised policies around:
a) the materials we use – sustainable wood, to avoid putting a legacy of materials out into the world that could not easily be re-purposed or recycled,
b) the manufacturers and suppliers we use – ensuring that their corporate responsibility arrangements meet our own high standards,
c) our own principles of employment – never reverting to the UK minimum wage rather than the UK living wage; always training/developing our staff; having and adhering to an ethical code of behaviours and communication that complement the altruistic intentions of the business; and
d) being aware of our customers use of our products – for instance ensuring that purchases for a commercial labour force, seeking assurances that the work in question is of itself ethical.
All of the above means that we feel comfortable with the character of our company. However, the consideration that ultimately squared the circle for us was the dawning that distributors of transitional shelters NEED to purchase from financially secure businesses that can maintain a steady supply. For this profit is essential!
Julia’s commercial background has been in technology and international finance. Managing a start up engineering company, supplying shelters to the disaster marketplace has offered her an opportunity to test her skills in negotiation and perseverance.
The shelters are uniquely designed to be erected quickly, in the field, without requiring any special tools or training. They can be manufactured in the UK and shipped or can be manufactured in country, under license, by a local workforce.
Julia Glenn also spoke to us at last November’s CBI Annual Conference about growing her business and how much that depends on the number and scale of global disasters.