4 November 2010
This week I have spent a couple of days at the BSR (Business for Social Responsibility) 2010 conference in New York, it's one of the largest conferences on corporate responsibility in the world, with over 1,000 delegates from major businesses, NGOs, governments and investors. One of the most interesting issues on the agenda has been the role of women in sustainable development - from their leadership within business to their role as active consumers, from the 60% of the world's food produced by female farmers to their role in product innovation. This morning we had a presentation from Zainab Salbi who founded www.womenforwomen.org sharing the powerful role women play in making communities stronger.
It is clearer and clearer listening to the CEOs speaking here from Monsanto and Avon, and talking to the delegates in the sessions, how sustainable development issues are being integrated into core strategy in company after company. It's a long way from the philanthropic view of CSR of 15 years ago. But this doesn't mean strategy which is created within the business alone. Many of the business challenges and opportunities companies like SABMiller face - such as how we involve more marginalised communities in our value chains to create greater economic growth - require collaboration with NGOs and governments, and that necessitates a new approach. It's an approach that I explored further in a recent book, co-authored with Dunstan Hope, one of BSR's Managing Directors and a speaker here, see www.bigresponsibilities.org.
One of the cases Dunstan discusses in the book concerns the internet and human rights, and there was a good discussion here about the difficulties of how a responsible tech company can meet both the expectations of those groups who promote a very liberal and open use of the web, and those governments who have legitimate security concerns. The www.globalnetworkinitiative.org is a collaboration that tries to bridge that gap and improve understanding.
Yesterday I was a speaker during the session on water scarcity - one of the big discussions at the conference. It's clearly an issue rising up the agenda rapidly as more and more companies begin to understand that both water quantity and quality challenges are going to affect their businesses in the future. We had a debate lasting more than 2 hours - and which kept going into the break - concerning how companies can best dimension water risk, put in place programmes to manage that risk, and then communicate to investors and other key stakeholders. SABMiller's Water Futures partnership with WWF, where we work together to understand water risk and then invest to protect watersheds upon which our businesses around the world depend, was much discussed as a new type of partnership approach.
In the context of continuing economic uncertainty and - here in the US at least - some significant political upheaval this week, the importance of companies, NGOs and governments working together to resolve sustainability challenges, and educate consumers about what they can do, is greater than ever.