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Breakfast of champions

5 January, 2024

In December we co-hosted an ESG breakfast briefing  with Echo Research, bringing together business leaders to explore the dynamics of corporate activism. The panel included Good Business CEO Giles Gibbons alongside Dr Aerial Ellis, Lewis Iwu, Kate Levine, and Alexander Rhodes

Fuelled by bacon rolls and great coffee, the discussion began by acknowledging that we find ourselves in a time of unprecedented change, as volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity prompting a technocratic pause. Businesses are hitting the brakes in terms of corporate activism, being mindful about when they use their voice and what exactly to say. And there is also nervousness around being too vocal about their own ESG commitments in a world where scrutiny of these and the regulation of them is increasing. And yet there was a consensus that this is a temporary pause, rather than a wholesale and permanent retreat from the era when businesses had, and wanted to have, a point of view on the world. So the debate focused on what is needed to provide business leaders with the renewed confidence they need to re-engage with the world around them and communicate their points of view, either on the issues within their control or the world around them.  

The debate returned repeatedly to authenticity and integrity. How do businesses discern their relationship with current issues and explore the impact of their actions? The consensus was clear — it comes down to purpose. What value is your organization striving to create, and which issues align with this mission? Businesses need a North Star, a guiding light for consistent decision-making, supported by a robust sustainability strategy. This approach helps avoid arbitrary choices and the risk of perceived bias, enabling them to stand firm in their decisions regarding when to speak and when to stay silent. And they need to be sure that their sustainability commitments align with their public positions – a business that doesn’t have a clear and robust DEI strategy is unlikely to be favourably regarded if it wades into a debate about race it has not been invited to take part in.  

A recurring theme stressed courage, extending beyond individuals to boardrooms. There is a positive correlation between diverse boards and higher ESG ratings, demonstrating the importance of diversity and having ESG champions in the boardroom. Collaboration with external experts, especially NGOs, was emphasized to facilitate systemic change. The prevailing sentiment was clear—solving complex issues requires collaborative action, strong leadership, humility, and accountability. Fear of failure and reputational risk looms large in ESG strategy, mistakes are inevitable, but openness and transparency will foster respect and trust.  

Musician and activist Nina Simone’s sentiment, “an artist’s duty […] is to reflect the times”, rings true for business as well. We closed with a sense of optimism around the future of ESG in the corporate environment, highlighting the importance of internal preparation, embracing the possibility of failure, and fostering inclusivity. It is about building confidence and empowering businesses to speak authentically, informed by their purpose, about the issues relevant to their mission.  

By Meg Seckel

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