What’s new in responsible business

I’m writing this on the way home from the Responsible Business Summit in London after a very interesting couple of days. The level of speakers […]

I’m writing this on the way home from the Responsible Business Summit in London after a very interesting couple of days. The level of speakers (including CEOs like Paul Walsh of Diageo, John Brock of Coca-Cola Enterprises and Ian Cheshire of Kingfisher) showed how sustainability has now well and truly penetrated the C-Suite.

The CEO most mentioned wasn’t there. Unilever CEO, Paul Polman’s very personal commitment to changing the way business is done and his candour about where his company is and isn’t hitting targets in its Sustainable Living Plan, was referred to throughout the conference by speaker after speaker.

Many of the companies represented though (and this was a self-selecting group of companies choosing to take the stand at a conference about sustainability) still seem reticent about communicating their achievements in this space. And that was despite hearing more than once that ‘M&S got all that credit for Plan A, but we’ve done just as much’.

For some it was not wanting to be accused of claiming credit for what they are now required to do by regulation; for others it was not wanting to tempt fate or encourage scrutiny of other parts of their business. Either way, it felt that many businesses doing genuinely good things are missing the opportunity to better engage customers, employees and other stakeholders by communicating what they are doing more broadly, and not just in corporate responsibility reports.

All our experience tells us that communicating in an open way – transparent about commercial motivations, honest about what still needs to be achieved, and in a human tone of voice rather than mangled in corporate-speak – can only benefit corporate reputation and brand affinity.  It’s also ready-made subject matter for those corporates and brands searching for ‘always-on’ content.

Five new things I realise after the last two days:That small-hold farmers in poorer parts of the world can now, thanks to the internet, see the prices being charged by companies in the richer parts of the world for products made using their ingredients. This realisation will help shift the balance of power and force companies sourcing there to factor in fair prices and fair treatment of workers, something companies like Puma and Unilever are already beginning to do. Thank you to Herman Mulder, Chairman of the Global Reporting Initiative

  1. Just how much of the Brazilian rainforest (and other carbon sinks) is now available for land use change projects for companies to offset their carbon emissions against.
  2. That the travel industry can become more sustainable by encouraging the emerging middle classes in India, China and elsewhere to adopt more responsible travel habits than we’ve got used to (in the same way as they are leap-frogging our use of fixed computers and going straight to mobile).
  3. That half of all alcohol consumption in low income countries is informally produced, which can lead to health and social problems.  But also that informal alcohol production is often just the sort of small domestic enterprise that can lift a family out of abject poverty. Just one of the many paradoxes on display at the conference.
  4. And I also learned that I can still just about listen and tweet (#rbs12) at the same time.


Photo credit: Sean Biehle