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Reflections on the Responsible Business Summit 2011

As I mentioned in an earlier post, we held our big annual conference, the Responsible Business Summit and awards last week. Here’s a list of the awards winners.

Here’s the link to the twitter hashtag, so one click shows you what everyone was saying.

Here’s what I recall from it, as briefly as possible:

1) It’s clear to me that more companies are wanting to know the detail of what best practice in elements of corporate responsibility looks like. But it’s also clear that out of say 100,000 or more ‘transnational’ companies out there, we’re seeing serious/semi-serious engagement from less than 1000 of the largest.

That’s not to say there are not lots of smaller, innovative companies out there who care deeply, there are. We just don’t focus on them. I’m thinking we should do so much more. Innovation often comes from much smaller firms as we all know.

2) CEOs are best without a speech: Our various and varied business bosses really relaxed when we asked them NOT to prepare much, if anything, and have a discussion instead. They made more unguarded remarks, which are always the best.

3) Bosses are becoming more open, to a degree. But suited corporate execs still say a lot less than they should about what they are getting wrong and learning from.

4) There’s still a lot of mainstream bosses out there who don’t see the link between sustainability and strategy and want to pretend it’s not there. Those that do, such as Kraft and Unilever, are doing so because they can see how sustainability can directly affect their business.

5) TNT’s Peter Bakker was excellent, and probably got the best reception due to his honesty and forthright comments. I hear he is stepping down as TNT CEO this year, so it will be interesting to watch where he goes next.

From the breakouts I was moderating, a few take-aways:

Measuring socio-economic impact: This session with Standard Chartered and my colleague Peter Davis, who wrote a report on the topic for us, was fascinating. It brought home to me once again just how vital this issue is. Still though, we don’t see many companies beyond Anglo American, Standard Chartered, Heineken, Unilever and SAB Miller doing really in-depth research on their socio-economic footprint. It seems like a huge opportunity for business to understand cause and effect. So on the one hand it was great to hear what the leaders are doing, on the other worrying that so few other companies grasp how important this area is for them.

Media: What makes a good story?: This session was great fun. I was able to give the Economist, Financial Times and the Times a bit of a grilling. What came out of it? From a practical point of view, here’s the post on it from our management blog last week. One point I thought was interesting was the bafflement on the part of the older journalists on the panel when asked about their responsibility to write about CR issues. They don’t see a link between sustainability policy/strategy in their businesses and editorial output. This is not a new thing, but still a question no major media business is really prepared to address yet.

Tax justice: What does a responsible corporate tax position look like? This was a good session, mainly because our two speakers disagreed. John Christensen of the Tax Justice Network feels there is an open and shut debate about stopping tax evasion: Governments simply need to show some backbone and shut down havens. Mallen Baker felt that campaigners demonising companies via direct action is preventing the needed mature debate from taking place. Corporate responsibility reports say nothing about Tax, pointed out Christensen. That’s because CR teams have no input at all on tax policy, pointed out Mallen Baker. That doesn’t mean of course that more companies should not be using CR reports to offer a view on tax. They certainly should in my view. It might make the City read them in more detail at least.

Finally: How to get marketing and branding directors on board

This was a good session with Henkel and Brendan May, UK Chairman of the Rainforest Alliance and founder of the Robertsbridge Group. We also had excellent contributions from both Coke and Bacardi (yes, as moderator I did make a bad joke about their combination). The view of the room was that marketing/branding can be brought on board, but the key, unsurprisingly is taking a tailored approach in their own language, and making sure their teams are not biasing consumer research with the wrong kind of questions, which has been known to happen.

I could of course only attend the sessions I moderated, along with a couple of others. But there was a real buzz around the 450 attendees at the event, much more so than last year. In terms of content and real management tips, I think it was the best conference we’ve ever held in ten years of hosting them.

So while corporate CR budgets are still frozen or remain limited in 2011, there’s room for great optimism in my view. Despite government weakness and focus on short term economic issues, companies, at least some of the 1000 largest and small innovators, are getting on with implementing policy and developing challenging targets. I believe two factors are key for helping more firms engage in 2011/12:

1) CEOs need to join forces and put more pressure on Governments. We need more public statements and even yes, campaigns by industry and business groups to push Governments onto more of a front foot on sustainability incentives and policy.

2) NGOs and campaigners need to turn their attention also to emerging market firms that are becoming increasingly global. No business is immune from bad publicity. I’m not suggesting Greenpeace stops pressuring Nestle, but I am saying WWF and others should focus just as much on newer global firms than on corporate donors or existing relationships. A whole new round of pressure is needed on emerging market companies, if nothing else to help them see the opportunities ahead in sustainable business.

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