The Responsible Business Summit Europe opened yesterday, on the eve of the general election, with a record number of delegates and sense that business’s impact on society is more important than ever. We round up the eight most important takeaways from the day

1.       “We live in a fragile political environment, and actions around the world are threatening to change our course,” said Paul Polman, Unilever’s chief executive, setting the tone for the day. Via video-link Polman emphasised the need for the business community to deliver where governments fall short. “Politics is becoming increasingly short-term, or should I say short-sighted, and it’s more important than ever that we as businesses stand up and engage with society,” he said.

2.       “If you’re a social brand you open yourself up to being an ethical brand. There’s no difference now between the two,” said Philip Mountford, CEO of Hunkemoller. He stated that customers are now much more politically aware, especially as generation Z and Y become the brand’s customers. There is no choice but to be ethical to succeed in business, he said.

3.       Kelly M Semrau, SVP, global corporate affairs, communications and sustainability at SC Johnson spoke about the importance of retaining consumer trust. “Nowadays the goodwill of consumers is easier to lose,” Semrau said. “Mislead them even once and the company can count itself lucky if it gets a second chance.” She said transparency was key. “Transparency is a great quality in people, and it’s great in a business.”

4.       “Sustainability measures can drive top line and bottom line [growth] and employee engagement - all at the same time,” said Blanca Juti, chief corporate affairs office at Heineken. She also spoke about the increase in social activism in marketing campaigns, saying “Sex doesn’t sell anymore, activism does.” But Juti warned that companies will be accused of greenwash if their activist ads don’t feel authentic, citing Pepsi’s ad featuring Kendall Jenner, which was widely condemned for trying to exploit the Black Lives Matter movement for commercial gain.

5.       Randall Krantz, director of energy, environment and social impact at Globality, Inc said artificial intelligence could be a powerful force for good if it helped create rather than destroy jobs. His company uses AI as a screening tool for its “matchmaker” service, helping big companies quickly find small service providers around the world that can provide them with sustainability solutions. “Seventy per cent of job-creation comes from SMEs, but they need to be connected to the global economy,” he said. “There are 100 plus companies in the world and 99.9% of them are doing nothing about sustainability. We want to use AI to change that.”

6.       Dirk Voeste, vice president of sustainability strategy at BASF, spoke about the need for companies to be able to accurately measure their social and environmental impact. A poll of the audience found that 95% of delegates felt they are not measuring their impacts fully. He added that the company's methodology had informed important investment decisions, including the best location for a new factory.

7.       “When your mission foundation starts to crumble, the whole business becomes precarious,” said Christopher Davis, international director of corporate responsibility and campaigns at The Body Shop. He described founder Anita Roddick as the “godmother of sustainability”, and said Roddick had laid a strong foundation for the company’s ethical beauty mission. “Find leaders that are enlightened,” he said. “Go and work for them.”

8.       “Sharing information increases impact and leverage,” said Mario Abreu, vice president, environment at Tetra Pak, urging coalitions to push the sustainability agenda. “When CSR is part of the DNA of a company, it means you can go out and collaborate with others.” This was echoed by Jos Van Haastrecht, global brand and communications director at DSM, who said partnerships provoke change: “Any one company can’t solve all the world’s problems. Imagine what would be possible if we work together.”

#RBSEU  Paris Agreement  climate change  collaboration  SDGs  Unilever 

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