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‘The future of responsible business is how firms are making their money’

A look at the past, present and future of responsible business in the UK

Almost exactly two years ago, Corporate Responsibility was declared dead - and much debate followed[1]. Like many CR teams at the time, mine cried out for a rebrand. We got one, and we also made some significant changes. But how far has the sector really come?

30 years ago, the City of London Corporation launched the Lord Mayor’s Dragon Awards – a celebration of the businesses that have a positive impact on society’s most pressing problems. It was 1988 and there was nothing of its kind in the UK. Now, leading the pack as one of many responsible business awards, should we assume this proliferation means things have moved on and that the concept of having a wider social purpose is commonplace to business?

Using the Awards as a yard stick, I’ve been digging around in our archives to test how far we’ve come. I’ve found that whilst our early applicants were from a small handful of businesses, now the bug has caught across a huge range of sectors and sizes of firms. I’ve discovered that those early applicants primarily volunteered in schools and didn’t always think about how they could have a sustained positive impact, where this year we’ve seen applicants as diverse as developing long-term solutions to commercial food waste, to tackling high levels of unemployment amongst refugee communities. I’ve also seen that a more philanthropic approach, focused on how a company gives away its money or its time, has now shifted to include a focus on how it operates internally - how it recruits fairly, how it buys responsibly. The next frontier, we say, will be in how firms are making their money.

In PwC’s 2016 CEO survey, 76% of CEOs defined business success as more than just profits[2].This is the result, I think, of growing pressure from all sides. After decades of unprecedented growth, followed by a devastating financial crash, the public are now demanding that business do more for society. Data will soon enable them as consumers to look up the ethical credentials of any company, live as they shop - if they choose to.

Investors, governments and regulators are slowly responding. And at the same time, the UK is trailing some truly inspiring alternatives to business as usual, with a vibrant social enterprise economy and the growth of the ‘B Corp’ movement, which pushes businesses to work for people and the planet as well as profit. There have been rumours of a tipping point for years – in the 50s when the ‘Corporate Responsibility’ lexicon first emerged, in the 80s as it found its way into management theory, in the 90s when the people-planet-profit approach was first proposed, and today with promises of a transformational shift to a sustainable and inclusive economy in which the creation of shared value will define business success. What is clear is that our language has evolved; it has become more sophisticated, more commercial, and more convincing. But we need to make sure that the work it describes is just as ambitious and effective.

I believe that change usually happens incrementally, in people and in collectives, so I am confident that we will keep making progress. And I hope that in another 30 years we will proudly celebrate something even greater than we are today.



Noa Burger, Head of Responsible Business at the City of London Corporation