Build back better. Like unprecedented, it’s quickly become one of the phrases of 2020. It encapsulates the hope that, despite all its challenges, we can a make positive change from the upheaval of the last eight months.
I’ve been reflecting a lot on the idea since I started as Interim Director at Heart of the City a month ago. As we navigate our way through one of the largest economic upheavals on record, is there still space and time for people to think about responsible business? How can we be sure that we’re focused on the future and help businesses do well by doing good?
Responsible business matters more than ever
Our members, ambassadors and partners’ commitment to the continuing importance of responsible business has been so uplifting. If anything, it’s become central to the way that businesses have responded to the pandemic. They’re supporting the communities affected, focusing on employee wellbeing and mental health and recognising ‘The Great Pause’ as an opportunity to think again about our impacts on the planet and our connectedness to each other.
As part of our Survive and Thrive series, we learnt this week about BNP Paribas and Salesforce’s responses to the pandemic. Their responsible business philosophy has been central to their approaches: it was clear how integrated this is in their operations and how essential it will be for a successful future. Both companies highlighted that, whilst their work has adapted to the new operating environment, their longer-term responsible business thinking has put them in better stead to respond rapidly and effectively to changing circumstances.
Align to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
For Tara Foy and Chris Morgan at BNP Paribas, effective change management has meant putting the United Nations SDGs at the heart of everything that the company does. They’re finding simple and practical ways for all employees to change their ways of living and working to help achieve the Goals through their “What’s my impact?” campaign. For example, encouraging employees to think about water usage at a time when we’re all washing our hands more than ever. They’ve also pursued corporate-level action such as signing the Tobacco Free Finance pledge and moving away from investing in tobacco.
For Alastair Higginbottom at Salesforce, the SDGs also provide a focus for his work. Before the pandemic hit, Alastair was already developing a new community engagement programme that would support young people to build core skills they need to enter the workforce. With the advent of lockdown, Alastair was able to adapt his delivery so that it was available to teams online. They were able to work in small teams to deliver a number of sessions that created a cumulative impact on the lives of young people. Over the summer, Salesforce teams worked with nearly 1,000 young people, part of a broader initiative to create at least five meaningful interactions with business people over the course of a person’s schooling.
Reflect on what you’re achieving already
What came across clearly from both examples was the importance of looking at what you already do and thinking about how this aligns with the targets set in the SDGs. The objectives themselves can seem conceptual and it may be unclear how you and your business might contribute to them. But identifying the Goals most relevant to you and looking at the targets underneath each Goal can help you realise that you’re already making a difference. That might be because you’ve already increased recycling (Goal 12) or have published a modern slavery statement (Goal 8).
Pursue responsible business – it’s just good business
I’ve always been an advocate for the idea that responsible business/CSR is not about what you do over and above your core business. Instead, it should be about how you make the core of who you are and what you do as a business better. Getting into the detail of the Survive and Thrive series since starting at Heart of the City has just reinforced that point.
What’s been positive when talking to members and other business representatives in the last month has been the desire to not lose sight of the good that can be extracted from this challenging situation. That includes recognising that things can work differently and that we all have a part to play. We can make change, and we can do it quickly if we need to; as we’ve done recently by centralising responsible business principles as a response to an incredible shared human need. The biggest example is of course, how many workplaces prioritised employee wellbeing and enabled flexible work so that they can operate in the most effective way. This was a business necessity, but right from the start it’s been a core responsible business principle.
Sadly, the other major issues facing society and the planet have not been put on pause by the pandemic response. If anything, we should expect an aggravation of many existing challenges as people’s livelihoods are stretched and social inequality is predicted to rise, all the while set against the backdrop of an ever-urgent climate emergency. Hearing from the businesses this week, and our members and ambassadors more generally, has demonstrated how important responsible business remains. In fact, it’s so important, it’s actually just good business.