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  • Writer's pictureSylvie Barr

Where Next for Business?

Photo credit: Raul Petri

This is the title of a session organised by the The RSA (The royal society for arts, manufactures and commerce), with Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever.

The top executive of one the biggest multinational companies shared his views a few days ago, in one of his final speeches before he retires.

As someone at the helm of an organisation whose products are used by 3.4billion people every day - that’s nearly half of the world population - and with a vision to be the global leader in sustainable business, Jope’s parting messages are worth listening to.

Not necessarily to agree and be in awe, but because with such clout - the company has a presence in all but 3 countries in the world - Unilever reaches and impacts more people than any government or international institution on a daily basis.

The company’s choices and decisions - good or bad - impact billions: be they consumers, employees, suppliers, customers, lawmakers, other businesses (did you know they have their own venture fund?) and communities at large.

And with power comes responsibility: Unilever has the opportunity to be an enduring key player in a group of businesses as a force for good.

So where next for business according to Alan Jope?

Businesses, like governments and their citizens, currently face 3 major systemic challenges:

-Climate warming

-Destruction of nature and biodiversity

-Ever-growing inequalities between the richest and the poorest

In this context, Jope argues that seeing a trade off between running a sustainable business and delivering strong profits is a false view. He calls Unilever’s approach one of ‘enlightened self-interest’.

Perhaps due to the latent influence of Unilever’s founders on the British side (the Lever brothers showed their interest in employee welfare in the late 1800’s) - the social element of their ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) policies seems the most developed to date.

The executives understand full well that company values and ethics are a strong driver in attracting the best candidates globally.

Their integrated strategy, which they call ‘the Compass’, also includes initiatives to offer skills and employment opportunities for 10 million young people across the globe (not only in Unilever factories and offices, but also through schemes in partnership with Unicef for example).

In Asia and Latin America, through their flagship haircare brand Sunsilk, they teach entreneurship, run management trainee programmes whilst women can find vocational roles through training schemes.

The environmental component of their ESG seems more nebulous, as Jope argues that in the absence of one single international body and a unique set of metrics adopted across different countries, ‘reporting non financial metrics remains unmanageable’.

Yet he flags that ESG criteria are very much looked into by existing and potential shareholders, and therefore something to embed in the running of the business.

He talks enthusiastically about regenerative agriculture (although a petition to stop Unilever using a certain palm oil supplier landed in my inbox a few days later) and how Artificial Intelligence already helps them deploy their advertising campaigns across multiple media and channels, as well as manage the running costs of their factories.

Looking ahead, Jope calls for a long term UK industrial strategy, which would be crafted within 15 to 20 year cycles, in order to avoid the short-termism of our electoral system.

He also talks of mandatory disclosures of carbon figures, coupled with a taxation system, to tackle the most pressing environmental issue in his view.

Last but not least, he hails collaboration as the way forward to overcome the global challenges facing us.

So yes, this was a well orchestrated session, a showcase of their best in class initiatives. But as I said earlier, this company has such clout, that it makes sense to listen to what they’ve got to say. It’s then up to us to make up our own mind and challenge them where we feel appropriate, as a consumer or a business operator.

It’s also perhaps an invitation to ask yourself ‘Where next for my own business?’.

Has any of the themes Jope ran through got any particular resonance and relevance with your business? The social contribution, the environmental challenges, the impact reporting?

Or can you see this maybe as an invitation to pause and reflect on your original vision, mission and values, and check whether any of them has changed or evolved since you set them out?

I found myself revisiting the latter over the past few weeks. After the buzz and excitement of this year’s first quarter, when I joined Altitude as an associate coach, I felt the need to sit down quietly and dig deep.

If you’d like to know what I found, give me another few days, as I’ll write again next week to share where I got to.

Until then,

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