“If you don’t bring purpose to business, citizens of the world will ask: why are you around in the first place?”
CEO of Unilever and B Team Leader, Paul Polman, posed to his fellow panelists at the Standing Up For Social Progress session during last week’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos. Fellow B Team Leaders, Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation and Andrew Liveris, Chairman and CEO of DowDuPont along with Rajiv Shah, President of the Rockefeller Foundation joined Paul Polman in this progress-focused panel.
Polman’s point reflects the groundswell of CEOs, senior business leaders and industry groups taking a stand on pressing social issues. From civic rights to climate change to immigration, business is beginning to look at its place in the world beyond the bottom line.
This statement also reflects the trends in public trust and expectations of business leaders and companies evolve. Stakeholders are now expecting progressive leadership. In his annual letter to CEOs, Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, wrote “society is increasingly turning to the private sector and asking that companies respond to broader societal challenges.” This year’s Edelman Trust Barometer results reflects Fink’s perspective: nearly two-thirds of respondents think CEOs should take the lead on change rather than waiting for governments to act.
Though research is very new in measuring this activism, early results shows that CEOs can have a major impact on public opinion. Increasingly, CEO activism has strategic implications: in the Twitter age, silence is consequential—heightening the moment for this dialogue.
And the consensus on the panel was clear: it’s time for business to acknowledge its impact on society, listen to the concerns of workers and customers and to take a stand to protect the rights of people around the world. The first step to doing so, they stressed, is to reestablish trust with workers and the public. Burrow emphasized that the current model of globalization has forgotten about labour. “We want to see that humanity, that human rights, are a fundamental part and parcel of doing business,” she said.
While business is beginning to take a stand on issues, like LGBTI rights, and operate with humanity, rising inequality around the globe has made it ever pressing for the private sector to take action.
"Creating a community mindset around business practice is all about recognizing that if we don’t bring everyone along we will be less prosperous and less effective as a global community,” Shah added.
Panelists agreed that this mindset is increasingly important as the future of work brings uncertainty for workers and communities. By speaking out and taking action on key social issues, business leaders can help create an inclusive and secure economy that serves all; a departure from the historical actions of the private sector.
“We might have been focused on too big to fail, but what we’ve said to people is you are too small to care,” Polman noted.
Importantly, panelists also acknowledged that the private sector doesn’t have to act alone. “Why do Paul, Andrew and I work together on The B Team?,” said Burrow, “To create a new dialogue.” This new dialogue can work in partnership with governments and civil society organisations to advance social progress for all.
“The collective will of all of us has to be organized in a way that creates the collision that business, government, and civil society under one title: humanity,” Liveris added. A statement that should both ground and inspire other CEOs and future business leaders to move toward a more sustainable and just world for all.
If you’d like to hear more from this panel, watch a recording of last week’s Standing Up for Social Progress Panel, here. To learn more about The B Team’s work on business action on human and civic rights, sign up for our monthly newsletter or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.