Today’s “CEO Day” concluded the conference by bringing participants together with a large panel of experienced leaders from the public and private sectors. It was a chance for participants to test their newly formulated ideas against the decades of experience that these executives brought in from the field. “Keep it real” could have been another motto for the day, as panel members repeatedly emphasized how hard it can be to keep track of supply chains, how resistant CEOs and shareholders can be to short-term sacrifice, how introducing new sustainability controls and KPIs into an already complex system could threaten to make the whole thing unmanageable and, of course, how much time and resources are required to institute change.
Is it true that financial costs, time requirements and lack of demand at the customer level are the most significant barriers to integrating sustainability into core business? What motivates companies to adopt sustainability measures? Do they want to improve their image, ensure regulatory compliance or access new markets? Yesterday, participants considered these questions in small group break-out sessions and then had the opportunity to exchange views with two industry representatives, including Markus Frank from BASF. BASF is not usually considered a sustainability good guy, but Frank’s stance on sustainability is a positive one. He says that sustainability makes good business sense, and his clear-cut answers to the morning’s questions seemed to take some of the mystery out of the equation.
Being a trustworthy business partner and a company that the civil society trusts – that is what matters if you want to be a successful company today. You have to do much more than make money. Doing responsible business means creating shareholder and stakeholder value! Prof. Klaus Leisinger also explained why this is so much harder today.
Today’s keynote speaker Björn Stigson has served as special advisor on sustainability to both the Chinese and US governments, so it was interesting to hear his assessment on how these two superpowers match up in the “green race” to transform to low carbon economies and to become the leading supplier of resource efficient technologies. Not surprisingly, Stigson is picking China as the odds-on favorite. The EU may still be the world market leader for green technology exports, he says, but China is clearly about to take over. Stigson describes China’s current 5-year plan as a “game plan” for sustainable development and for dominating the world market for green solutions. “There is no doubt in their minds that they will achieve this,” says Stigson.
Although many companies recognize that the responsibility for a sustainable future rests on their shoulders too, there are still big question marks when it comes to sustainability in daily operations, in product innovation, and in customers´ and employees´ minds. What’s needed are creative responsible business solutions based on a new mode of entrepreneurial thinking. This leaves us with a number of challenges, which will be discussed as part of the Bonn International Summer School on Responsible Business.
How can we make sustainability a core business issue? It’s the first of six “challenge” questions that will drive discussions at the upcoming Bonn International Summer School on Responsible Business (BISS). And it’s a fundamental challenge indeed. To bring issues like workplace safety, environmental impact and social responsibility out of the realm of risk-management and PR, and into the “canon” of core business issues such as profitability and shareholder value will require nothing less than a new paradigm – new definitions of what it means to succeed as a company and business leader.
Everybody is talking about sustainability – governments, non-governmental organizations, businesses and society alike. A great deal of activity goes into securing a sustainable future, but what does it mean to actually take responsibility for it? It means taking action, not just talking and listening. But there is plenty of fingerpointing to others when it comes to making actual progress in mitigating climate change and global warming, saving natural resources, finding solutions to the global food crisis and managing a growing world population with exploding megacities. Companies play a vital role when it comes to the big questions our world faces today. Why? Because together with governments, they are the driving forces behind the world’s vitality and well-being.