#DareTogether, the theme for this year’s Sustain, EcoVadis’ annual conference for the sustainable supply chain, proved particularly fitting. Scheduled for March 12 in Paris it happened just as the Covid-19 crisis began in France, having already wreaked havoc in other parts of Europe. This meant two things: The conference would either have to be called off or turned into a virtual one. We decided to go against the odds and opted for the latter.
And it proved a great success too. The sudden pivot to a virtual event resulted in more than double the number of original registrations. In the end we had nearly 2700 registrants from 57 countries, and more than 1600 unique logins to the event, with attendees remaining with us, on average, for more than five hours.
“These figures prove that companies and organizations can adapt and find alternatives to on-site events to continue to move forward by sharing their practices and asking questions,” said Pierre-Francois Thaler, EcoVadis Co-CEO after the conference. “One of the advantages for us was that we were able to invite more than 600 EcoVadis employees in all our offices around the world to attend the conference and workshops for the whole day.”
Changing Norms and Mindsets: The Only Way to Sustainability
But there was so much more to the #DareTogether idea than just the switch to the virtual format. The theme was present throughout the conference with many of the speakers repeatedly highlighting the need for businesses and individuals to challenge the status quo and dare to be different.
Professor Ilian Mihov, Dean and the Rausing Chaired Professor of Economic and Business Transformation at INSEAD, a graduate business school with campuses in Europe, North America, the Middle East and Asia, was among the first to speak on that point. “We need to change norms and we need to change our mindset,” he urged in his key note address. And changing the norms can be easier than it seems, he explained further, using an example close to home. In 1960, he said, business schools would only accept men, in 1967 a handful of women would attend classes and nowadays there is no question that business schools are well-attended by both men and women.
Much the same goes for sustainability and sustainable business. “If we don’t change the norms we won’t have much success in the area of sustainability,” stressed Professor Mihov and added “The good news is that there are a lot of companies that are taking things seriously.”
A Seismic Shift Toward Sustainable Finance
And a striking illustration of just how seriously companies around the world are taking sustainability came from Dr. Gabrielle Walker, Author and Climate Change Strategist, who shared fascinating highlights from the finance industry in her talk “The Climate for Change.”
“A seismic shift in the financial world really is happening,” she said and pointed to the World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report 2020. The paper, which is published annually, presents the major risks the world will be facing in the coming year, and the current edition, for the first time ever, identifies the top five problems as being related to climate change.
“It is clear that the earth is on an unsustainable trajectory. Something will have to change at some point if the human race is going to survive,” Dr. Walker quoted JP Morgan Chase & Co to further support her point and summarized the bank’s commitment to sustainability outlined earlier this year. This includes a pledge to facilitate $200 billion in environmental and economic development deals, pulling back from advising and lending to the coal-mining industry, gradually transitioning to clean energy and pulling the plug on the funds for new oil and gas drilling projects in the Arctic.
BlackRock, the world’s largest money-management firm, which oversees over $6 trillion of assets, was another example used by Dr. Walker. The financial giant recently introduced a variety of sustainability products in a bid to make a positive contribution to society and its CEO, Larry Fink, has repeatedly called on business leaders to step up, saying that climate change has become a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects.
From Personal Values to Sustainable Value Creation
It is clear that business leaders are increasingly finding themselves in a unique position. More than half of the world’s population, believe that “capitalism, as it exists today, does more harm than good in the world,” as pointed out by Professor Mihov referencing the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer and as much as 60% say that CEOs are driven more by greed than a desire to make a positive difference.
But, at the same time, out of the four institutions, business, government, NGOs and media, none is seen as both competent and ethical. And it’s business that ranks highest in competence compared to the other three, and as such it is expected to take the lead role in global governance. As much as 92% of employees expect CEOs to speak out on issues of the day, including retraining, the ethical use of technology and income inequality. And three-quarters of the general population believe CEOs should take the lead on change instead of waiting for the governments to impose it.
Gilbert Ghostine, CEO at Firmenich, a privately held fragrance and flavor giant, the largest one in the field and the second largest in the world, speaking in Fireside Chat: The Responsibility of CEOs, agreed that it is a responsibility of CEOs nowadays to drive performance and strategic transformation along with leading engaging, sharing and learning. Firmenich, he explained, consistently innovates and delivers on sustainability. And indeed, as of January 2020, Firmenich has the highest Platinum rating from EcoVadis for environmental and social performance and is in the top 1% of the 60,000 of suppliers assessed.
But what’s Ghostine’s recipe for sustainability success? Interestingly, far from sticking to a strictly business approach, he believes it’s crucial that CEOs adopt a personal approach. “Bring your personal and family values to the workplace. (...) There’s no value creation without values,” Ghostine said.
From Solidarity to Innovation in the Supply Chain
But the need for a multi-stakeholder approach in addressing the world’s greatest challenges mustn’t be underestimated. “Business alone cannot do this,” said Professor Mihov, stressing the importance of adhering to the United Nations Global Compact’s Sustainable Development Goals as well as partnership, best practice-sharing and collaboration.
So, what does that mean for the supply chain?
We have a great example in the chemical industry with Solvay, a Belgium-headquartered chemical company and one of the founding members Together For Sustainability, a joint initiative of 25 chemical companies, which sets global standards for environmental, social and governance performance of chemical supply chains.
“The supply chain of the chemical industry is not vertical (…) it should be collaborative, we should all work together,” said Ilham Kadri, Solvay’s CEO in her talk on creating sustainable shared value, explaining how the approach at Solvay is to share best practices both upstream and downstream, to listen to the suppliers and to learn from them.
And this was echoed by others. Jonathan Sims, Chief Procurement Officer at ENGIE, stressed that work to involve suppliers has to be done in the right way, which often means reinventing the relationship between buyers and suppliers.
But all in all, it’s about growing your connections, tackling constraints and challenges together to create shared value for all stakeholders. And it’s worth remembering Ilham Kadri’s words that
“We can all do well by doing good.”
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