It has long been a fashionable and catchy aphorism to say that something will be the “oil of the 21st century,” using the power of fossil fuels in our last 100 years to underline the importance of another factor. Mark Getty applied the description to intellectual property, and as he made billions of dollars from the creation of Getty Images, he ought to know.
For all its ubiquity, I want to argue that trust will be the oil of the 21st century; or at least say that it will be an increasingly valuable commodity in the business world for the next 20 to 30 years. I use the word in its broadest sense, but at its heart, it is a fundamental—maybe even foundational—bond of mutual belief and reliance between individuals.
In some ways, this may seem very old-fashioned. We now mock the idea of people who conduct commercial affairs on the basis that “my word is my bond,” and think of bewhiskered Victorian industrial titans sealing huge agreements with a good lunch and a firm clasp of the hand. It’s easy to dismiss it as the dangerously innocent, but I think there is more to it than that.
Why is trust so valuable? To begin with, mutual dependence and honest dealing make business transactions easier and more enduring. If you trust your instincts and your gut feeling of your counterpart’s fundamental reliability, you will feel more positive and make decisions that will last. You will have greater confidence in your business links, and you will act in a fuller and more open way.
It works between businesses and customers as well. If your brand is trusted—if you supply good services or products for a fair price, treat your customers well and provide good aftercare and support—your customers will remain loyal rather than be tempted by your competitors, even if they offer a lower price. Christopher Lochhead and his partners at Category Pirates have even argued that establishing yourself as the leading brand in a new category will give you an unassailable advantage that cheaper or more sophisticated competitors cannot challenge, and trust is a vital part of this.
Trust is also a very useful shortcut. If you believe that someone will do what they say, and do so without deception or complication, you will reach decisions more quickly. Due diligence remains important, but it can become a secondary system of verification rather than something which guides you ab initio. You will reach out more swiftly and more surely to reputable partners and be more agile and responsive in your sector.
Additionally, trust is hugely democratic. There is no way to persuade people through monetary means that you can be trusted. Equally, building a reputation for reliability is largely free. It is open to the largest conglomerate or the smallest startup to be honest, fair and dependable and is, therefore, a great leveler.
We know this in our bones to be true. When we think of trust, we think of established names like Microsoft, Apple or Rolex, companies which have emphasized their reliability and heritage; but we also might think of smaller enterprises like service provider Edoc, software specialists Headspring or north London distillers Sacred Spirits. Your headcount might be in the tens or the thousands, but you can still demonstrate that you can be trusted.
Over the last two decades, we have seen the development of a market in which consumers are not simply looking for the cheapest price or the highest return on investment. As corporate titans like Larry Fink and Jamie Dimon have emphasized, profits must now jostle for prominence with human rights, worker conditions and other ethical considerations like sustainability and environmental concerns.
The rise of the B Corp movement exemplifies this market shift. It encourages businesses to “shift our global economy from a system that profits few to one that benefits all: advancing a new model that moves from concentrating wealth and power to ensuring equity, from extraction to generation, and from prioritizing individualism to embracing interdependence.”
The best thing is that this is a virtuous circle. Developing trust by acting fairly and reliably is a virtue, and can do genuinely good things for the world, but it is also a financial advantage. It will help your business grow and prosper, make you rich and successful and your professional ecosystem will do the same. It is proof of the old truth that you really can do well by doing good.