Davos Man Meets the Masses

January 20, 2016, 12:00 PM UTC
Photo shows the World Economic Forum (WEF) logo outside the Congress Centre in Davos during the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting on January 23, 2015. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
Photograph by Fabrice Coffrini — AFP/Getty Images

One of the enduring ironies of the World Economic Forum in Davos is that the world’s élites congregate in this Alpine village each year to contemplate a backlash against the world’s élites.

The Edelman trust barometer, an annual online survey of more than 33,000 people released here this morning, shows that backlash is growing. The survey asks respondents how much they trust government, business, NGOs, and the media to do what is right. It found that among “élites” – those with a college education and incomes in the top 25% — trust in institutions is rising. But for the majority of the population, trust levels have barely budged from their recession lows. “There is a huge and growing disparity between the attitudes at the top of the pyramid and the attitudes of the mass population,” communications guru Richard Edelman told his well-heeled Davos breakfast audience this morning.

Corporate leaders are starting to get the message. A separate survey by PwC of 1,400 CEOs shows they are feeling increased pressure from both customers and employees to address broader social issues. The CEOs report a rise in the desire of talented employees to work for “organizations with social values which are aligned to their own,” and a rise in customers seeking “relationships with organizations that address wide stakeholder needs.”

“A growing number of CEOs are recognizing the need to place values and purpose at the center of their strategy,” said PwC Chairman Dennis Nally. “With the lack of trust that exists today with business, sooner or later you have to figure out how to regain that trust.” As a response to the trend, PwC announced a new partnership yesterday with LRN, an advisory group headed by Dov Seidman, to help corporations “elevate behavior, define and scale their values, and become animated by purpose.”

Such high-minded rhetoric is a staple in Davos. But the PwC survey is a sign that it may be spreading beyond this snow covered village. At FORTUNE, we’ll be discussing the trend at a dinner in Davos Friday with the CEOs of GM, Virgin Group, Blackrock, Alcoa, Cisco, Nestlé, Santander, Salesforce, Monsanto, Allianz, RBC and Deloitte, among others.

For a case study of a business that is putting purpose at the center of strategy, check out Beth Kowitt’s fascinating piece about Fair Oaks Farms, a dairy farm turning cow manure into energy, among other things. It’s featured in the February issue of FORTUNE magazine and is being released today online, here.

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