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Irony, trust and transformation at the 2012 Responsible Business Convention

15 March 2012

A strong ironic tension overhung the main conference hall at the UK Responsible Business Convention yesterday.

While the Co-CEO of Goldman Sachs International, Richard Gnodde, got up to give his views on how responsible business could ‘get fit for the future’, comments in The New York Times by a departing Goldman Sachs derivatives boss about corporate greed in his former firm were being broadcast across the media, and soon lighting up the gossip on Twitter.

The truth or not of whether Goldman’s culture is one of greed has been well debated and was not a topic that those at the Business in the Community convention chose to discuss further. The CEOs on the panel also did a pretty good job dodging a question about executive pay.

But that didn’t take away from some important and visionary debate and discussion yesterday – the first of the two-day convention and exhibition held at north London’s Business Design Centre.

Andy Clarke, UK CEO of Asda supermarkets – part of the Wal-Mart group – told delegates of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton’s mission of ‘Saving people money to help them live better.’

Clarke himself said he’d left school with just one O'level and been lucky to find a mentor and climb through the ranks. This personal experience, coupled with Walton’s mission, had spurred his own belief that corporates should take responsibility for helping to deliver business and interview skills to young people who had fallen through the education system. He said store managers had also been empowered to make their stores into hubs for their local communities, with a £5m budget for stores to share among their communities in the next three years.

‘Some people say it’s no more than corporate do-gooding,’ he added. But what was good for communities was also ‘right for the P&Ls’ he said.

Similar stories emerged from McDonalds CFO Brian Mullens, social entrepreneur Kresse Wesling and InterContinental Hotels Group CEO Richard Solomons.

Mullens spoke of the transformation of McDonalds over the past six years, after the company woke up to the fact that it was not giving customers what they wanted or valued. ‘We listened to our customers and learned what mattered to them,’ he said.

The strategy included a repositioning of the business around the positive aspects of its supply chain, ingredients and environmental footprint. ‘Earning our customers’ trust is vital to the health of our business,’ he said.

Sustainability guru Tony Juniper, who was asked to sum up, highlighted three key themes that the discussion had pivoted around. He said that transparency was crucial, and from this you gained trust. But the third theme was transformation – the businesses on the platform had demonstrated not only the need to be open but also the need to make positive, proactive change.

Day two of the convention was set to kick off against the backdrop of BITC’s 10th Corporate Responsibility Index, which reveals an average score of 89% across the 110 or so corporates that took part.

The index report said that most of the companies demonstrated a ‘strong vision’ and commitment to behave responsibly. In most areas, firms had formal policies that were available publicly – but there were notable gaps in human rights and supply chain issues.

‘Many companies have incorporated CR issues within their risk evaluation process,’ said the report. ‘But the degree to which this is covered differs and stakeholders sometimes have little involvement in the process.’

The full details of the index are available on the BITC website.

Watch out for more coverage of Responsible Business 2012, including exclusive video interviews.

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