Lauren Garey

What exactly is Corporate Social Responsibility? How does it compare to Citizenship? What responsibility –social, financial, or other– do businesses have for causing and resolving global issues? How is the flow of capital restricted or enabled through corporate and social enterprise channels? What could be done to improve this?

The list of questions flowing through my mind proved endless as we began the day focused on business. The one I did not think of was: How do we define ‘business’? Working for Barclays, I think of business from a corporate mindset, with a particular financial focus, but I understand that there are many different business models and angles– corporate, non-profit, social, entrepreneurial, and hybrid. The Summit highlighted that many of these businesses, regardless of their bottom line(s), have a few core items in common.

Muhammad Yunus drew attention to the first: social impact. He spoke about social business models, ones which he works with directly through Grameen and which reinvest their profits in enacting positive societal change, rather than paying out tangible dividends. He encouraged us to rethink the traditional business model and to pursue our dreams and goals in a new, hybrid format. At one point, he passionately exclaimed, ‘Science follows sci-fi.

Write social fiction!’ Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS, continued to emphasise this by stating that there is always a business case for giving back. He discussed the importance of the integration of multiple bottom lines and the powerful force of striking a balance between earning a profit and benefiting society. His company, TOMS, has a 1 for 1 model which is simple to understand and impactful. For every pair of shoes he sells, he sends a pair to someone in need; for every pair of sunglasses he sells, he corrects someone’s vision in a developing country.

Paul Polman, CEO Unilever, emphasised the second: sustainability. He spoke about the importance of urgent action stating ‘the cost of inaction now is bigger than the cost of action.’ He spoke about the large publicly listed companies and the role many of them play in controlling natural resources. He linked this role with responsibility – a moral obligation to help those without resources, to provide voices to the voiceless. 

Paul provided two examples, both of which are shocking:

·       $80bn is needed a year to feed the hungry, yet $270bn is wasted in the food supply chain each year

·       3000 kids die every day from hygiene and sanitation related disease. Paul quantified this figure as ’40 Boeing 747s full of children crashing every day’ – when you think about the death toll in this context, it is unfathomable to think it has not yet been resolved

Antony Jenkins highlighted the third similarity by speaking about values and purpose. His speech proved authentic and passionate as he emphasised the importance of a purpose-driven organisation with values which define the culture. He highlighted the impact that this model will have – allowing the right thing and the commercial thing to be adjoined. He stated, ‘Moral and ethical perspective to business is also a commercial thing. People don’t trust companies any more.’

The concept of values far transcended a business context as the next panel discussed the possibility of aligning personal and professional values and choosing to live by them.

In this forum, a female representative from South Africa’s government told us ‘you cannot be a change agent if you yourself are not changed inside.’ Many of the panellists encouraged us to redesign the current version of success, the one we inherited from previous generations. One panellist urged, ‘success should no longer be achieved through ruthlessness and ladder climbing and instead should take into account values including compassion and creativity.’ In essence, we need the values of the present and the future.

The key takeaway for me for this day remains the assertion that business cannot be a bystander to the world’s problems. We can and will incentivise our businesses, employers and executives to stop talking about the problems and what we could do, but rather to just do it. After all, as Paul Polman aptly stated, ‘the world is long on words and short on action.’ 

We ended the evening at the Lion Park in Johannesburg where we dined outdoors while a cheetah walked throughout the restaurant, pet baby lion cubs, and watched the animals feed. This experience served as the perfect reminder of the summit’s elected location, Johannesburg, by highlighting Africa’s natural beauty.