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David Grayson: the role of business in an uncertain future


“Going All In makes a business more resilient to future shocks because it has a better grasp of the changing external environment. It makes a business better able to attract, retain and get the best out of employees, business partners and suppliers.” David Grayson, Emeritus Professor of Corporate Responsibility at the Cranfield School of Management, Chairman of the Institute of Business Ethics, showed such foresight in his book All In: The Future of Business Leadership before the outbreak of the global pandemic.

It is true that the COVID-19 pandemic has once again confirmed the importance and urgency of sustainable development. What should businesses do to adapt to the external changes and promote sustainability in the wake of the economic crisis caused by COVID-19? On August 6, David Grayson gave four suggestions at the 15th International CSR Forum.

The world faces existential challenges: Climate Emergency, bio-diversity losses, hyper global inequalities, how will 9-10 billion people live at least reasonably well within the constraints of One Planet by mid-century? In addition to these long-term challenges, the Coronavirus pandemic, the imposition of lockdowns and quarantines across the world all cause the knock-on impacts for the global economy. Humankind has to find common solutions to these common challenges. Governments, international institutions, NGOs, Civil Society must all play their parts.

The role of business – and especially those engaged in international business are critical to resolving crises and achieving global sustainable development. Inevitably, in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic and the economic shocks which COVID-19 is causing, the focus of many businesses right now is simply staying in business. The mantra or slogan currently chosen by them are: Adapt, Survive, Thrive.
Adapting may involve difficult decisions. Business leaders should remember there is a fair, ethical and responsible approach to decision-making – and one which is not fair or ethical or responsible. For example, if redundancies are being considered, have all alternative options been considered first? Temporary reductions in workers’ hours and pay, pay cuts for the highest paid, temporarily freezing discretionary spending and so on.
Some may wonder, after COVID-19, whether businesses will be less committed to sustainability, to managing their Social, Environmental and Economic impacts? Maybe some businesses who did not take sustainability seriously, will reduce their efforts. Hard times test resolve and commitment. Those who are genuinely committed will press ahead. The slogan or mantra at this moment: Build Back Better, would possibly be chosen by more and more enterprises.
Businesses that want a fighting chance of continuing into the indefinite future can no longer be tentative or half-hearted about embedding sustainability. They have to go All In. This means having a clear purpose, which is authentic and inspiring, explains why the business exists and how it creates value for itself and for society. The British Academy has sponsored a major, multi-year study on “The Purpose of the Corporation.” This has been led by Prof Colin Mayer from the University of Oxford’s Said Business School. Prof Mayer and his colleagues argue that purpose of a business should be finding profitable solutions to the problems of people and planet; and that businesses should not profit from causing harm.
Going All In for sustainability is about having a comprehensive plan, which minimises negative social, environmental and economic impacts, maximises positive respective impacts and covers all aspects of the business and extends into the supply-chain. There are several essential enablers of an effective Sustainability Plan, including:
• Being comprehensive and internally consistent; covering all core business activities; integrated across functions, strategic business units and markets.

• Articulating a compelling business case based on sustainability of the business and of the planet.

• Including stretch goals based on science and aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals as well as clear metrics, rigorous measurement, and timely reporting and disclosure.

• Ensuring that the Plan is championed and driven by top leadership who are constantly re-selling the Plan with the new data and examples required to keep it fresh and relevant.

• Pursuing it persistently, even through adversity, and being responsive to changing societal expectations.

• Ensuring individual and organisational rewards and resources are aligned with delivery of the Plan.

It is a Plan for sustainability which increasingly merges with and becomes the overall corporate strategy – as Unilever has now achieved after ten years of its Sustainable Living Plan with the articulation of its “Compass” for the 2020s.
Going All In means having a sustainable culture, which is innovative, inclusive, empowering and engaging, where people are encouraged to take the initiative; which is open and transparent, and with a core sense of ethics and responsibility.
A business that goes All In, we need to have the skill and will to collaborate extensively with a range of business, civil society and public sector partners. It will need to act as advocates, speaking out and up for social justice and sustainable development.
Together we have to work to ensure that the 2020s are not just the Turbulent Twenties, but also the Transformative Twenties as we transform to a more regenerative and sustainable economy.
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