Friday, October 4, 2019

“Responsible” Business Has Turned Out to be as Boring as it Sounds – It’s Time for a Reset

Giles Gibbons
Giles Gibbons, CEO and Founder, of London-based Good Business doesn’t mince words. He started the organization in 1996, back when he was working for Saatchi and Saatchi. Along with co-founder Steve Hilton, he saw the power of brands to change the world for the better.

His work with Good Business has covered a wide range of areas -- from a behavior change smoking campaign in Botswana, a large-scale consumer research project in Europe to understand parents’ attitudes to healthy living, to a social brand marketing campaign to protect Arctic habitats.

But 20 years on, he is concerned that progress has not come far enough. Below, we discuss his frustrations, the reason for urgency, and his call to action for today’s business leaders. 

MK: You’ve been working in the “sustainability movement” for more than 20 years. What has been achieved? 

GG: Our honest answer right now is nowhere near enough. Yes, things have changed. No longer are we forced to make “the business case” for putting sustainability on the agenda ad infinitum. And that’s because it is on the agenda, and firmly so. 

Nearly every big company worth its salt understands what its main environmental and social impacts are and is actively managing them. They have CR functions and teams, which are integrated into the business (with varying degrees of success) and which have a seat on the Board. And a great many of them have articulated a purpose for their business that builds from the value it brings to the world. They have ambitions, and targets and publish progress against them. They engage with their stakeholders. They talk about their values, and many really mean it when they talk about how much all this means to them and how much they care.

But the sense of progress is in many ways a mirage. And any complacency or sense of self-congratulation would most definitely be mis-placed. Because none of what’s been done so far has created anything like the change we need. 

 MK: You are saying that business has not gone far enough driving the sustainability agenda? 

GG: Business, when all is said and done, is not doing enough to match the change that is needed. The big businesses that have engaged have been delivering slow and steady incremental change when what we need is a thunderbolt of transformation. “Responsible” business has turned out to be as boring as it sounds. It doesn’t have to be.  The opportunity for companies big or small to make transformational change and benefit hugely from their actions is a proven case.  We need to inspire every business to take up this challenge.  What is exciting is the new millennial start-ups have much of this thinking baked into the way they do business.  Watch out big business! The challenger brands are coming to get you.

MK: What’s driving the current sense of urgency? 

GG: There is the severity and scale of the problems we face. We can’t keep saying we’ve got 20 years to save the world because the time will run out. From the carbon zero commitment to the SDG deadline, horizons for delivery are drawing ever closer, not so the action they demand.

There’s also a massive new wave of will. For the first time in history, consumers and culture are in the lead on all this, demanding action and change.

Business is no longer in control of where it sits on the sustainability ambition slider, or even which impacts it should lead on. Take plastic. Culture has catapulted it onto everyone’s agenda. Whatever the sector, whatever your business, you need to address it. And it’s not just plastic. We’re seeing a whole new wave of these “horizontals” -- issues that spring from the ground and which every business, in every sector needs to sit up and act on. Diversity. Health. Climate. When it comes to the horizontals there is nowhere to hide.

MK: Where does this leave big, established businesses, the ones which haven’t yet demonstrated they can move in tune with the new times? 

GG: Well they are actually in a very good place to make this work. The fundamentals are in place. As we said at the beginning, most companies are already doing the groundwork. They are managing their core issues and impacts. And this is more important than ever. For one thing it means that they will be prepared for the horizontals that will continue to come. Even if they haven’t made them a priority, they will be on the radar.  And for another, it means that they can be the grown up – standing in contrast to the newcomers, who have oriented themselves around one issue – because they have everything covered. Their basic responsibility approach is comprehensive and coherent, and they’ve dealt with some of the complex issues that simply take time to get in order.

What they need to do – and do with determination and urgency – is to step up to the new challenges of our times. Build from the foundations they have built and launch into real leadership. No longer is there time to be cautious. The winners will be the ones that go for it. That fix their sights on their role in a more progressive capitalist system that delivers, and which put it all over the front door. You almost can’t be too strong or go too far because if you don’t someone else well.  The real danger is bland action that disappears without trace.

MK: What is your advice looking forward? 

GG: So, let’s draw a mark in the sustainability sand. We’re campaigning for January 2020 to act as a moment in time. For us to accept we’re at Ground Zero. 

We think businesses should take this moment and use it as a catalyst for change on a totally new scale. Let’s start by rebasing sustainability targets to a January 2020 start point. Demonstrate acceptance that what has gone before isn’t anywhere near enough and create a very real and practical reset. And let’s also make sure that we move forward with a holistic view of sustainability and start applying the same rigor that science-based targets brought to environmental impacts to social ones – the SDGs provide as good a benchmark of success as the Paris Agreement on carbon does. 
Our own personal commitment is to use every opportunity we have to help businesses create the change we need. To go further and faster, to raise their ambitions, and think about where January 2020’s new start will take them. The next decade is all about action. 

And the best news is that is not too late, yet. A more positive future for capitalism and businesses really is within our grasp – in a way it never has been before. There is a fierce urgency to now. We want to make the most of it.

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