Big Business, Big Responsibilities: from ‘villains’ to ‘visionaries’ charts the journey that many major companies have been on over the last twenty years, where issues that were previously defined as corporate social responsibility (CSR), philanthropy or environmental compliance are now becoming core to future growth strategies. We welcome your comments and thoughts in the debate here. You can find out more about the book at www.bigresponsibilities.org
The story of big business as the ‘villain’ grew through the 80s and 90s as campaign groups very effectively highlighted cases of environmental damage, such as oil spills, and human rights abuses such as child labour in East Asian supply chains. Of course we still have oil spills, including BP’s very serious challenges in the Gulf of Mexico, and in the last couple of weeks we have seen further allegations of UK retailers buying from companies which use child labour. In some ways, if you just read those media stories, you might assume that in the last twenty years not much has changed.
But actually a great deal has changed. Leading businesses across a range of sectors have taken a dramatically different approach to corporate responsibility and on some issues are now right at the cutting edge of understanding and responding to issues which threaten ecology and human welfare in a way that they were not twenty years ago.
It is at its heart an optimistic book. We argue that companies succeed best in societies that succeed, and that businesses have a strong interest in supporting economic and social development and environmental protection. But we know also that this potential is severely limited if it is undertaken in isolation from others. It is only through collaboration, shared learning and consensus building between business, government and civil society that we will attain the systemic change required to achieve sustainable development.
We believe that five new realities have emerged which mean that some major global businesses are now more likely to be leading calls for environmental protection rather than lagging behind them; to be promoting human rights rather than ignoring them; and to be working with NGOs rather than against them.
• Shared Risks mean Shared Responsibilities. Companies are moving beyond a philosophy of enlightened self interest to recognize that they are but one institution that faces shared risks and therefore shared responsibilities. The largest global companies - especially those that depend on scarce land or water resources such as food and beverage companies - that will first see and respond to new ‘tragedies of the commons’ in the coming decades. Some of the world’s largest companies are leading projects to understand environmental resource scarcity and ensure that these resources are managed successfully to support generations to come.
• Today’s challenges are best addressed through collaboration. This approach to partnerships is relatively new and companies, NGOs and governments are learning the opportunities and challenges of working together. There is interest in such approaches beyond a group of leading companies and it is possible that these partnerships will lead to greater and more significant links between these institutions, particularly businesses and NGOs.
• Being trusted has never been so important. When companies are exposed as having abused human rights or attacked for undermining environmental standards, nowhere is it more keenly felt than internally. Surveys of recent university graduates regularly cite the perception of the social responsibility of a company as a major reason for choosing a particular business to work for and this remains an important issue once people get into their careers.
• Changes in public policy to address sustainability challenges will increasingly shape the business operating environment. Action from government to address global challenges is beginning to re-shape the regulatory and market context within which business operates and this trend will likely accelerate as momentum for action grows within governments. However, the exact form of this intervention is still being shaped and leading businesses are beginning to recognize that it is far better to engage constructively in the co-creation of policy approaches that achieve sustainability outcomes consistent with business success than to shout from the sidelines and be subject to poorly crafted legislation.
• The successful companies of tomorrow are treating sustainability as an opportunity for innovation, not as a risk to be mitigated. A decade ago addressing social and environmental challenges was frequently viewed by big business as solely an exercise in risk management. The contrast between this risk mitigation approach and the innovative approach taken by the leading businesses of today is stark. An increasing number of businesses view these global sustainability challenges not just as risks to be mitigated but also as opportunities to drive innovation. The successful companies of tomorrow will not be those that carry on with business as usual, but those who view solutions to these global challenges as drivers of innovation and opportunities to develop the successful products of tomorrow.
Throughout the book we draw on examples of major companies around the world who we believe are leading in areas such as progressive climate policy, taking a holistic view of job creation in the value chain through new sourcing and distribution models, and the internet and human rights. We also touch on how real change is achieved through ‘everyday champions’ throughout businesses beginning to integrate these issues into their day jobs and why these champions should be identified and encouraged. It is only through mobilising those millions of employees that we will see the scale of the change necessary to tackle the challenges which societies face.
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