The Bridge theatre on London’s Southbank played host to a 600-strong audience for B Lab UK’s first B Inspired event on Thursday 10th October. Global circumnavigator, Fergal o’Nuillian, a geography teacher and explorer, opened the event with the poignant image of the earth rising in space. He told a story about one of his students who against the odds, passed his geography GCSE. He set the tone for the event by reflecting that like the advice to his teacher from this young man, we must all learn to practise hope on a daily basis.
Fergal didn’t come alone. Students from City Heights Academy gave voice to his assertion that it is hard to be young at the moment. At his invitation, the audience leaned in and listened closely to a young woman in her school uniform – KatiAnn Barris Rocha whose spoken word poetry blistered eloquently against the expectations society places on her generation. The audience got to its feet in appreciation of her performance.
The first panel – Challenging Business as Usual was made up of Oxford University Professor and expert on corporate purpose, Colin Mayer; Alexandra Mousavizadeh, of Tortoise Media, Sophi Tranchell, the founder of Divine Chocolate and Chair, James Perry, Cook co-founder and man who brought the B Corp movement to the UK.
Colin laid out the historical context for our current situation: Fifty years of Milton Friedman economic theory and the primacy of shareholder value creation as the legal requirement and core purpose of business. He contended that the capitalist system is not fit for our current needs and must change to generate profits only for the companies whose solutions are benefitting people and planet. He used the example of Danish pharma company Novonordisk, explain how they switched their purpose from manufacturing insulin to eliminating diabetes.
Alexandra explained the robust methodology by which her new Responsibility 100 index has been compiled. She cited 5000 data points, 52 indicators, 27 of which are directly relevant for corporations mapping progress through an SDG prism. The Index is a window into corporate rhetoric versus reality, making it easy to see who has signed up to the UN global compact for example, and then analysing any resulting actions in what she called a ‘talk versus walk’ score. She defended the Index format because it ‘creates a race to the top’ and highlights gaps in data and performance. Perhaps the most sobering observation is that it should not be hard to find evidence of corporate contribution to SDGs but it is.
Sophi Tranchell’s contribution expanded on a core theme from Colin’s observations – ownership. She reflected on 20 years of Divine Chocolate – back then a model that drew a lot of scepticism that having cocoa farmers the biggest shareholders (44%) could ever work. That ownership has been key in diversification and mitigation for climate change because the farmers are closest to the issues and empowered to make the necessary changes. Sophi spoke up for the need for patient capital, long term investors and engaged consumers. Divine certified as a B Corp in 2016.
James Perry summarised that ‘business has the wrong operating system’, reflecting on how we think about performance reporting. Tomorrow’s economic rule book needs new rules of the game. We need a legal system that recognises the role of owners (shareholders) as trustees. Change comes quickest when companies are required to report. Regulatory requirements such as publishing pay differentials or ensuring the living wage is paid all through the supply chain would be helpful.