|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Opening Press Conference for Global Compact Leaders Summit
As the world continued to reel from the financial crisis, and climate change, poverty and resource constraints tested capabilities, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged more than 1,200 top business executives gathered in New York City for the 2010 Global Compact Leaders Summit to usher in a new era of sustainability in which corporations played a central role.
“We need business as our partner more than ever,” Mr. Ban declared, stressing that no other corporate responsibility initiative was as global or inclusive as the United Nations Global Compact, which this year was marking its 10-year anniversary. With nearly 6,000 companies participating in more than 130 countries, the Compact asks businesses to integrate 10 core principles into their operations in the areas of human rights, labour standards, the environment and anti-corruption.
Speaking at a press conference to open the Summit, Mr. Ban said that more important than the growing number of participants was the vision underpinning the Compact: that principles and profits go hand in hand. Recalling that he had urged global businesses to strengthen their commitment to corporate social responsibility, he also pressed Governments to do their part through transparency and smart regulation — building blocks that would allow business activity to generate the benefits everyone knew were possible.
With that, he announced the launch of the Blueprint for Corporate Sustainability Leadership, which would set a course for the Compact’s next decade. “Our hope is to create a truly transformative movement,” he said, adding that its goal was to have 20,000 participants by 2020. At the same time, the United Nations would work to maintain the integrity of the initiative. By way of example, he pointed out that, in the last two years, more than 1,300 companies had been de-listed for failing to make progress in implementing the core principles. “The Compact may be a voluntary initiative, but that doesn’t mean it lacks teeth,” he said. (See Press Release SG/SM/12974-ECO/180.)
Joining the Secretary-General at the briefing was a panel of business leaders comprised of Mark Foster, Group Chief Executive of Accenture; Ajit Gulabchand, Chair and Managing Director of Hindustan Construction Company; Huguette Labelle, Chair of the Board of Directors of Transparency International; and Paul Polman, Chief Executive Officer of Unilever.
Mr. Polman told reporters that, while it had been a fruitful 10 years, the Blueprint would provide a framework to set the bar even higher in the future, with 20,000 representing a minimum number of participants he felt must take part in the Compact. He also was pleased that the United Nations would move forward with the business community, as the challenges were of such a magnitude that none could handle them alone.
“We’re already stealing from our future generations,” he said, stressing that only companies that decoupled growth from the environment would be accepted by consumers in the future. The Compact created a framework in which competitive companies could do both.
Building on that, Ms. Labelle said “we need to scale up dramatically”, as integration of the Compact’s 10 principles was essential to companies’ survival. Business leaders must not only set the right tone, but ensure that their marketing, product delivery and sales employees understood what was meant by acting transparently and with the highest integrity.
Moreover, they had to ensure that they did not outsource problems that might previously have been part of their companies, like corruption, she said. They also were essential partners in creating demand for transparency and accountability among Governments. Civil society’s job was to work with them and advocate that Governments implement principles. Heads of Government had discussed with her the need to create demand, in order for change to occur.
Mr. Gulabchand, noting that Hindustan Construction was based in India — an emerging economy — where the Millennium Development Goals were most essential, said his company had done much in the field of water, especially in advocating that a water policy framework be set. A water-neutral business, it also had pledged to build responsible infrastructure, such as housing, and incorporate such principles both in its business model and construction processes. It tracked progress with measurable goals and hoped to encourage more companies in the region to join the Compact.
Discussing a survey conducted by Accenture, Mr. Foster said over 1,000 business leaders had been interviewed for the study, with results showing a shift in mindset in recent years. Ninety-three per cent of participants had responded that sustainability would be essential to their companies’ future success. Seventy-two per cent of chief executive officers had cited “brand, trust and reputation” as among the top three factors driving them to take action on sustainability issues, while 58 per cent had identified consumers as the most important stakeholder group that would impact how they managed societal expectations.
Fielding a question on whether business leaders felt the need to rebuild trust in the wake of environmental disasters, Mr. Polman responded that it was hard to see how the actions of some could be used to judge a whole industry. What was important was that the Compact provided a framework for behaviour and the more companies that lived up to it, the better off the world would be. “More than ever, we need to create the environment for supply and demand to work together to create prosperity,” he added. Environmental issues often forced businesses to set the bar higher and regain confidence.
Adding to that, Mr. Gulabchand said companies indeed must build more trust in the area of the environment. The recent oil spill had brought to the fore the fact that businesses needed models for transparency and open practices. After all, businesses provided for the needs of societies.
To a question on the Compact’s greatest achievement thus far, the Secretary-General recalled that, in 2000, when the initiative was founded, its principles were unknown in his country — the Republic of Korea — among the world’s most prosperous economies. Ten years later, awareness had grown significantly. While proud of such progress, “we can’t be complacent about what has been achieved”, he said. The point of today’s Summit was to take stock of where the corporate social responsibility movement was. His focus was on action. Businesses sought profit, which should go hand in hand with promoting human rights, labour standards and environmental responsibility.
He added that lessons could be learned from environmental tragedies, such as the recent oil spill, that would help businesses develop better policies and procedures to handle environmental risk. “We must do all we can do to prevent and minimize this risk,” he said.
Asked about steps taken to communicate the message to consumers and about the onus on companies to align with the Global Compact, Mr. Polman said that, if standards were not met, companies would not join the initiative. “We want players to play by the rules of the game.” Most companies involved with the Compact shared best practices and published results. Other various initiatives, such as carbon disclosure, included standards set by the Compact.
In that context, he pointed out that “the consumer is ahead of us”. They understood Governments were failing them, and that political cycles and political pressures often impeded progress. Powerful with their social networks, they could start a rally within minutes. “They will increasingly vote with their wallets,” he said, which was ultimately a force for change.
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