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Event: Can business build a better society?

Ever wondered what business is for? Whether profit and responsibility can go hand in hand? Yesterday (15.09.15) the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) brought together an expert panel for a Great Business Debate to discus these issues and answer, can business build a better society? 

PFBNot on it’s own” was Philippa Foster Back CBE (Director, Institute of Business Ethics)’s answer to the debate question. Business is certainly an important factor, she argued, but it is only by working in concert to the greater good that business can help build a better society. Businesses also need to be looking at how they do business – suggesting that firms who operate with fairness, integrity and honesty will do well. It’s no good having values and not living them, she said. She also drew attention to the many companies that are trying hard to get it right, but stressed that we could always do better.

KBKirsty Britz (Director of Group Citizenship, Barclays) reminded the audience that we’ve never needed business more than now: big business is the one truly global system we have and it has the reach, influence, and scale to contribute. Commenting on what business needs to do to restore faith she suggested that first, businesses should remember that they operate as members of society and put the customer at the heart of what they do. Businesses can go even further than this, identifying ways to enhance their impact or even evolve their business models to take a lead on trends.

matthew_fell4We can’t build a better society without business, asserted Matthew Fell (Director of Competitive Markets, CBI). He opened by explaining that at its best, business is a force for good – as the lifeblood of local economies, supporting jobs and training, and paying the taxes that fund local services. There are many of examples of firms that are already embedding responsibility in how they do business, he said. But if business is to build public confidence, it’s not enough for firms just to say they are complying with the law – expectations on business to do the right thing are higher than they were 10 years ago.

ALUp next was Anja Langenbucher (Director Europe, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), who spoke about her experiences of working with public – private partnerships to affect change on global issues. Private sector partners can be particularly useful for their ability to drive innovation, she commented, and they are the only institution able to scale solutions fast. Answering the question she argued that there is no choice – we have to work with a huge set of stakeholders and business has to be one of them, to build a better society.


peter kingFinally, Peter King (Partner, Weil, Gotshal & Manges) shared how law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges are applying these issues in practice. Responsible business is a natural thing for a law firm, he argued, given that people are drawn to the profession because they care about justice. Weil, Gotshal and Manges are involved in a range of activities from their 50hr pro bono target to encouraging employees to volunteer. You can’t build a sustainable business if you aren’t also involved in building a better society, he added.

A range of themes emerged from the lively panel debate session chaired by Sarah Gordon and audience Q&A, including the link between business strategy and action and how being a responsible business can give firm an edge – competitively in the market and in the war for talent. Another prominent issue was the role of business leaders in making responsible business a priority and giving employees the freedom to innovate and deliver.


So what do you think? Can business build a better society? What do they need to be able to do help? Let us know if the comments below or by tweeting @bizdebate.

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  1. IdeasforLeaders -

    Volkswagen failed to live up to its own exemplary corporate values statement. Most businesses are ethical, but too many high profile scandals feed the anti-capitalist narrative that business is intrinsically bad. Business urgently needs to learn how to bridge the corporate values gap:

  2. Westread -

    I find the above interesting but I don’t see how business can contribute to society. A business is only responsible to its owners and those who run it. Any company can close its operations down and move elsewhere, frequently to a cheaper place of operation. Society (and the locally employed workers) might well moan about it but if that is what the owners want to do the objections by society don’t matter.

    How was the financial industry acting responsibly in 2008, creating a crisis of mega proportions. They were acting in the interests of their owners and senior managers. There was no morality or ethics about their actions. It was entirely driven to make as much money as possible.