Ethical Corporation’s Responsible Business Summit 2012, a few thoughts…

This year’s Responsible Business Summit was for me, the first ever year where the CEOs were more impressive than our other speakers. (Ethical Corporation hosted the conference last week in London)

That’s rare. And interesting.

Usually the company executives are head and shoulders above the slightly-awkward CEOs who read out speeches and then take questions only to offer fairly vague answers.

(I must say 2011’s conference was not like this. But in the past many have been)

This year I was privileged to interview three CEOs in depth at the conference: John Brock from Coca-Cola, (podcast here) Ian Cheshire from Kingfisher and Stef Kranendijk from Desso, a smaller but very innovative company making carpet tiles and football pitches.

I found all of them knowledgeable, humble and eager to share.

Of course, these were three of the most engaged CEOs you can find. So one would expect them to know what they are talking about.

Our themes in 2012 were threefold: Competition, collaboration and cultural change.

Our CEOs and other speakers were strongest on competition and cultural change.

Collaboration is a weak spot, for all businesses.

It goes against the traditional grain, and outcomes are hard to attribute.

But it is the topic most-discussed right now, yet with the least tangible results.

The ‘competition’ theme of the conference was designed to highlight the business case, and how to make sustainability pay off across the business.

That’s increasingly well known these days. Carbon, water efficiency, and engaged staff seem like the main pay-off, although there are others.

Likewise, companies ‘get’ that internal cultural change matters. More and more firms understand how the basics of embedding works, and that starts with cultural change.

Collaboration though, is a different kettle of fish. It’s working with both customers (Desso) and suppliers (Coca-Cola Enterprises) for the leading companies.

In the case of Kingfisher, it’s also about trying to make markets. (Their work on the UK Green Deal may well soon be a leading example of sustainability changing the way SME industries work)

But my take from the conference sessions is that two key sustainability / CSR areas have yet to be tackled substantively: Collaboration with competitors, and consumer engagement.

On the first point, I just didn’t get the sense that’s happening much, for understandable reasons. We’ve seen some examples in apparel, but they are very limited.

The Consumer Goods Forum is also grasping the nettle in some ways. (Deforestation is one of those)

Likewise, the work of the Sustainability Consortium looks promising. But I haven’t heard much substantive detail as yet.

The overall message to me, is that it’s early days for collaboration beyond common policies on areas such as climate change, water, and basic standards.

What I heard at the Responsible Business Summit seemed to reflect that.

On the second issue of consumer engagement, we’re all talking about it, but even Unilever is struggling, as Paul Polman himself admits. (podcast here, article here)

This years UK drought, while it lasted, helped raise awareness probably more than any company has done.

Consultants made the case at the conference that companies have an opportunity to lead.

There is, they said, a trust gap/void that can be filled by the right business actions.

I’d agree, and have argued that on this blog.

Linking that with changed consumer behaviour and particularly increased sales is the tricky part.

Very few folks seem to know how to do that, and be able to demonstrate it.

It may not really be possible. Unilever’s work will tell us whether it is possible in at least some areas.

In many though, it may just be about taking unsustainable products out of the mix.

Not as simple as it sounds, and not cheap, but possible.

Regulators may be able to help level playing fields and reward better products. Time will tell.

These ‘limits to consumer engagement’, and how to get past them to a more sustainable world will likely be a big theme for the conference in 2013.

I’m looking forward to that debate.


  1. I don’t even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was great. I don’t know who you are but definitely you’re going to a famous blogger if you are not already Cheers!


  2. "This years UK drought, while it lasted" – LOL!

    Interesting for you to pick up on 'limits to consumer engagement', more education is needed and more info getting "out there."

    Rod Fleming

    p.s. please check See-J Consulting's reflections on Responsible Business playing a leading role in society on

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