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Slowly But Surely, Americans Are Softening Their Negative Impression of Business

Has the business world regained public trust? It might be too early to make that conclusion, but based on a new survey, one thing’s for certain: Americans have softened their negative impression of the corporate world.

A new report from JUST Capital, a nonprofit founded by hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones that tracks and ranks companies on the business behaviors Americans care about most, found that a greater share of people—30%, up from 27% in 2017 and 26% in 2016—see business as heading in the right direction. A smaller share of the public—38%, down from 47% last year—view business as heading in the wrong direction. Meanwhile, 32% aren’t sure, up from 25% last year.

That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, but from business’s perspective, the needle is inching in the right direction. The trend reflects “more tangible evidence of companies’ leadership on things like pay, sexual harassment in the workplace, and the environment,” says JUST Capital CEO Martin Whittaker, who cited, as an example, the companies that stepped up to address climate change even after the Trump administration withdrew the U.S. from the Paris accord. Nike’s powerful statement on racial injustice, and Levi’s call to end gun violence may also spring to mind. “I think those issues have gotten more press and CEOs are more emboldened or willing to speak out,” Whittaker says. A healthy economy also doesn’t hurt.

Also worth considering is Americans’ lack of faith in politicians. Americans, Whittaker says, “are looking for things to believe in.” A Pew study earlier this year found that just a quarter of Americans have confidence in elected officials to act in the best interest of the public; 45% said the same of business leaders. “If you can’t believe in what’s going on in politics, you turn to what’s going on in the workplace,” Whittaker says.

Indeed, JUST Capital’s survey results find that as Americans are warming up to business, they’re viewing the sector as more than simply a means for commerce; rather, they see it as a vehicle for tackling social issues too. More than half—56%—of survey respondents say CEOs should take a stand on social issues, but only those related to their business. Yet an even larger share—63%—say CEOs of large companies have a responsibility to take a stand on important social issues, regardless of the pertinence to their day-to-day operations.

Those aren’t passive assessments; in fact, consumers are actively backing companies based on their social stances. A staggering 79% of respondents say they believe people are “somewhat or very effective” when they act to try to change companies’ behavior. (That’s up from 71% in 2017.) And 78% have put that belief into practice, reporting that they’ve taken at least one action to support what they consider to be a company’s “positive behavior,” such as buying more of a company’s product, mentioning a company on social media, or investing in a firm. Just under 60% say they’ve taken one of those actions in the past 12 months.

What’s perhaps more remarkable is Americans’ willingness to base their employment on a corporation’s virtues. When asked to consider working for a “just” company—one the survey defined as “ethical, honest, and fair and behav[ing] this way when it comes to its employees, customers, shareholders, and the environment, as well as communities it impacts locally and around the world”—76% of people say they would choose to work for such an employer, even if it paid less. A similar share of respondents—77% and 71%, respectively—still chose a “just” company when the survey specified that they would hypothetically earn 10% and 20% less. That’s a notable finding in an especially tight labor market.

All told, the results reflect “a recognition that companies are, in fact, social organizing forces, and do affect the lives of million of people and millions of families and millions of communities,” says Whittaker, whose organization partnered with NORC at the University of Chicago to survey 9,000 Americans in two waves—from May 1 to May 16, and from June 7 to July 1—for the new report. It’s clear that people think employers “should stand up, even on non-traditional issues,” Whittaker says, and that doing so is a prerequisite for companies that want to compete in the 21st century marketplace.