We round up a selection of insights from leading CEOs and sustainability practitioners during a second thought-provoking day at Ethical Corporation’s flagship event

  1. Sustainability is about “working with others, leveraging technology, and tackling not very pleasant issues, because that’s the right thing to do,” according to Gilbert Ghostine, CEO of fragrance and flavour house Firmenich. He said Firmenich’s work tackling malodour in public toilets in developing countries is not “very glamourous”, but could potentially prevent thousands of children from dying due to hygiene issues. He called on other “sanipreneurs” to join Firmenich in promoting sanitation.

  2. Michael Lantz, CEO of Accedo, said the door of consumer privacy had to be shut “before it’s been opened too widely” by rapidly changing technology. Lantz also advised companies to only interact with customers when they want to be approached or risk losing trust: “It’s so cheap to communicate with your customers you tend to overdo it,” he said.

  3. Richard Howitt, CEO of the International Integrated Reporting Council, stirred up a debate over whether companies should “cherry-pick” SDGs to focus on, or aim to tackle all 17."I'd rather work out what's material for my business and do something concrete to achieve it,” he said. But Hugo G Von Meijenfeldt, co-ordinator of national implementation of the SDGs in the Netherlands,disagreed: “The family of 17 goals belong together,” he said. “Let’s combine them. The SDGs are about more than ‘do no harm’. We have to do better.”

  4. Tony Smurfit, CEO of Smurfit Kappa, explained one big reason for his company’s investment  in reducing its CO2 emissions. “I’ve got kids. I don’t want to see them grow up in a planet that’s disappearing.” As well as helping the environment, Smurfit emphasised that such initiatives attracted talent. “If you don’t have [a positive] agenda, [millennials] won’t want to work for Smurfit Kappa,” he said.

  5. Mark Golding, CEO of Oxfam, said companies must act to root out modern slavery from their supply chains, but they must also ensure other human rights were not being violated, such as the right of workers to organise and speak to management. He highlight the limitations of auditing. “Auditing is part of it but not the answer. It’s whether your second tier actually wants to fix” the problem. “If you are just auditing, you are conning each other.” Sarah Carpenter, business and human rights analyst at Assent Compliance, agreed: “Auditing is part of it but it’s not the answer … [Reducing] worker vulnerability is key to addressing modern slavery.”

  6. Leon Kamhi, head of responsibility at Hermes, said investors must be mindful that investment was not just about achieving returns. Investors should also consider “the impact those investments are having on society as a whole.” He said long-term thinking is key, citing the recent BA IT malfunction as an example of short-termism. “Anyone who had travel insurance couldn’t receive compensation from BA.” He said the lack of generosity to customers was “troubling”.

  7. A poll of the audience during a panel session with HSBC showed that the best way to engage employees on sustainability was “to get them to personally connect with sustainability and what it means to them.” Graham Smith, director of sustainable finance at HSBC, said: “Millennials won’t join an organisation unless they see we have a green sustainability ethos.”

  8. In a heated debate to end the two days, Bennett Freeman, former US deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, and Gillian Caldwell, CEO of NGO Global Witness, discussed the role companies can play in countering the rise in populist politics. Bennett stated that business “would do what’s necessary” to fill the void in climate leadership left by President Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement. But Caldwell warned that business action on climate change might not be enough, with the Trump administration’s rolling back of environmental and human rights legislation. “We have 400 new civil laws [in the US] restricting free speech. Companies have just as much to lose from these moves as we do.” A member of the audience asked if they saw the pendulum swinging back from the populist movement. Freeman said this may happen in the long term, but “expectations on companies will intensify, not diminish.” 

#RBSEU  SDGs  Accedo  Firmenich  sanitation  digital  CO2 emissions  millennials  BA  HSBC  Paris Agreement  Global Witness 

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