This year's flagship EC conference brought together some of the best and brightest in business - from all sectors and geographies - for two days of inspiring, practically-minded sessions

More than 360 delegates attended this year's Responsible Business Summit to generate conversation and an atmosphere of excitement around the future of responsible business. Amongst those in attendance were senior-level representatives from O2 Telefonica, Patagonia, M&S, Unilever, Oxfam, Standard Life, Heathrow Airport, Veolia, Salesforce, Janssen, the UK government, and many more.

There were some pertinent issues which came up repeatedly over the course of the two days, which any responsibly minded businessperson will be considering now they're back at their desks...

1. Passionate leadership is key

Plenty of examples of brave, intelligent, forward-thinking leadership were on display over the course of the conference, but the luxury of such figureheads aren't afforded to all. Without a potent force at the top of the organisation, stakeholders - both internal and external, including investors - aren't provided with the common direction and encouragement that we'll need if we're to achieve our social & environmental goals.

"We need for brave CEOs to stand up to the markets to make it clear that doing good means doing better," exclaimed Paul Dreschler, President of the Confederation of British Industry.

Every business should have a leader who can proudly say "I passionately believe that doing business sustainably is the new normal" and mean it: not such an outrageous thing to suggest.

2. Collaborate with critics and competitors too!

Although collaboration obviously isn't a new concept, it is vital in scaling up sustainability. There were innumerable fantastic examples of how companies are collaborating with NGOs, supply chains, or governments which were fantastic to see, but what was most impressive (and progressive) were the companies overlooking directly competitive concerns to maximise social & environmental impact.

CEO of Virgin Atlantic Craig Kreeger encapsulated this notion most impressively when he said that although Virgin Atlantic had found what they believe to be the only recylable source for jetfuel, they would continue to work with competitors to help them find their own solutions: "We'll be encouraging competitors to reach their own jetfuel solutions too, because it's not about competition but a better future for the planet."

Ronan Dunne summed it up well: "Responsible business should be working with others collaboratively, not just saying 'look at me.'"

3. Building trust is not only paramount, but a collective effort

In much the same way that businesses need to work together to create positive impact, they must also collaborate to build trust in an industry.

Paul Dreschler, CBI, said in his keynote session on "Doing the Right Thing" that "if any member of the business community fails, we all suffer," and he's not wrong. The automotive industry for example is (certainly for the better) facing increased scrutiny in the wake of a series of emission-related scandals, but even those who have behaved without reproach are now struggling to regain consumer trust - something which can "take years upon years to build, but only a few seconds, or 140 characters to destroy."

If you're not convinced of the value of trust in generating business, when polled 58% of delegates said that they expect companies to listening to consumers most over the coming 5 years.

4. Imbue your employees with a direction and a sense of purpose

Organisations are simply a collection of people and perhaps not inherently "good" or "bad" in themselves, and even the greatest emloyee can make a mistake. It is, however, as the Group Chief Risk Officer at Standard Life, Raj Singh, said "the behaviour of only a few employees which can affect the appraisal value of the entire organisation."

As such, there are two sides to this coin of employee engagement;

  • Engage with employees to encourage the correct behaviour to mitigate risk surrounding conduct

  • Engage with employees to educate them about your organisation's purpose, and what they can do to contribute

Paul Donovan, CEO, Odeon UCI, used this notion as the real driving force behind what he had to say in the session on "Creating a business of purpose": "the key to doing the right thing is setting up an overarching sense of passion and purpose for employees. Engagement with staff on vision and values drives performance for all." 

This relates very much back to the first point about leadership: it's very difficult to motivate employees at any level towards more sustainably-conscious behaviours if the message and the direction isn't coming from the top. Paul Dreschler, who was the source of much wisdom over the course of the event, commended Donovan's approach: "Highly engaged employees are a result of great leadership, to my mind."

5. Real transparency is the key tool to be used in building consumer and societal trust

Perhaps there is no leadership job so beleagured by consumer and societal pressure than that of CEO of Heathrow. Over the years, the airport has faced a considerable amount of pressure to do as much as they can to be sustainable, and rightly so. John Holland-Kaye though spoke at considerable length not only about what they were doing to tackle the issues material to their customers and their business, but what they had previously done wrong, and what they still needed to do.

"When I started, people weren't prepared to talk to me about future, because of history of not having done what we said we would." However, with much time, patience, conversation and effort, the airport have worked to make "real, tangible differences" such as promoting 195 frontline security employees to management positions, rather than sourcing externally, or reducing late-running flights by 1/3 to avoid disturbance locally. "Working together across 5 local boroughs with all of our stakeholders helping us to do the right thing"

Holland-Kaye even used the opportunity of being onstage at #RBSEU to announce five new pledges to the airport's local residents.

The sentiment was echoed by most other companies over the course of the day, including The Body Shop, whose International Director of Sourcing Mark Davis said "We will admit we're not perfect, we have a journey to travel, but we'll be transparent about that journey."

6. Training the next generation and setting them up to tackle future challenges

Ronan Dunne explained the generational gap in business by saying that "we have a generation of digital youth and analogue parents" - an interesting way of surmising what is perhaps one of the lesser-discussed issues facing businesses globally right now. Paul Dreschler also said that "there are tremendous opportunities out there to make the next generation the best yet, and not the biggest threat to mankind."

So what is evident that "business as usual" may not be quite sufficient for achieving any of the social or environmental goals we have now. Perhaps rather than bemoaning the "ambitious" nature of the SDGs, businesses need to begin looking internally to see how their existing systems and methods can be adapted to these future challenges and optimised for the generations to come.

In this way, Telefonica UK (O2)'s endeavours to educate not only internally but externally too (on a social level in the UK) is a good indicator of where business needs to be heading: bridge the generational and technological gap, and then optimise business models accordingly.

7. Affecting customer behaviour & beliefs - education to sustainability

It's one thing to win the trust of the consumer, but how can businesses win the public over to a more sustainable mindset? Particularly when those behaviours seem so entrenched and linked to what are (unfortunately) contentious issues such as climate change? 

As VP of Public Engagement at Patagonia, Rick Ridgeway, stated: "Communication and behaviour change is one of the hardest things about sustainability." 68% of delegates polled said that brands in general are currently doing a bad job of communicationg sustainability messages, 96% of the room agreed that it is to some extent the responsibility of brands to influence more sustainable lifestyle. So perhaps it is through more engaging and more sustainably-focused marketing that brands can garner some influence over behaviour patterns, as well as through undertaking all of the above 6 points, especially; with a focus on young people, on the environment, and on collaboration for impact.

Full video and audio session recordings from 30+ tracks are available to subscribers. If you didn't receive access to EC resources with your RBSEU pass, subscribe today.

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