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Our Insights 20 Jun 2012

The Value of Lunch

By Geoff Lye

There is increasingly talk of partnerships and ‘pre-competitive collaboration’ and this is one bright spot in the corporate landscape that was reinforced by Unilever’s Paul Polman at a High Level (UN speak for ‘you’ll be in good company’) lunch at the Rio+20 Business Day. It was a strange affair.

I found myself at a table with the CEOs of DSM and Sakhalin Energy Investment, the COO of Nestle as well as some senior non-business participants including a UN Assistant Secretary General. Without warning, I was co-opted to chair and report the table’s pre-determined topic discussion focused on the role of the Green Economy and trade and investment. Bizarrely, the three questions which we had 45 minutes to ‘answer’ seemed very remote from the topic. It was amazing to me that seasoned business leaders accepted the task as given – to tables of eight randomly assembled people who had mainly never met before. The discussions were interesting but hardly robust or in-depth. But I am assured that all of the conclusions will be synthesised into the business sector’s inputs to the Heads of Government later this week. Watch that space!

Interesting perspectives which were shared over lunch at our table included:

  • Broad agreement that old style lobbying for corporate self-interest is no longer responsible or effective; the new model should build collaborative alliances focused on positive sustainability outcomes with roles aligned around each stakeholder’s unique skills and assets.
  • Signs of a ‘dialogue of the deaf’ with government and business each seeing the other as the power brokers in the sustainability debate; in truth, the UN and other policymakers are seriously hampered by the need for consensus while businesses can (and the best do) take unilateral action whether in the business’ or society’s best interest (or both).
  • The inability of investors, and the financial community more generally, to attach any value to corporate sustainability investments which remains a real barrier to business leaders who are keen to move proactively but are still judged on short term profitability.

On this last point, I was unable – given my moderating role – to remind them of Paul Polman’s words quoted in January of last year: “…we are moving our business model to the longer term. I tell our investors, if you don’t like that, to be honest, then I fully respect you but look at other alternatives that might be better suited to your needs”. He strikes me as exactly the sort of courageous business leader that we need; and that other CEOs need to emulate.

In the plenary feedback session, it was reported that one leading consumer goods company’s CEO committed over lunch to show on pack pricing of both the actual price and the full environmentally-costed price incorporating current externalities; this would aim to educate consumers to the problem of hidden environmental costs (which it is estimated will increase prices by 5-20%). It may well have been Puma’s Jochen Zeitz – his company has already developed and disclosed a P&L which does just that. But I will be delighted to find another CEO following in his footsteps and will dig around on this tomorrow.

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